Suing a business or a person in small claims court is often a last resort when you’ve been wronged as a consumer.
But while bringing your case before a judge isn’t all that difficult, it can be another story altogether when it comes to getting the money you’re due if you win!
How to collect a judgment after winning in small claims court
We’ve previously described the process of how you go about suing in small claims. If you go through the steps and the judge finds in your favor, that’s when the hard work of collecting on your judgment begins.
Now, if you’re dealing with an honest individual or business with whom you just didn’t see eye-to-eye on a particular business matter, you (the plaintiff) will likely get a check from them right on the spot. That’s the best case scenario.
If, however, the defendant is going to put up a fight not to you pay, your ability to collect the money the judge says you’re owed will depend on your persistence.
Of course, we should note that if someone is unemployed or chooses to skip town, you may find your judgment is worthless. You can’t get blood from a stone, as the old saying goes.
But let’s assume the defendant is gainfully employed and could pay you, but just chooses not to. Depending on your state, you may have the right to do the following:
- Take money from the person’s paycheck or checking account
- Put a lien on his or her house
- Seize the person’s automobiles
Taking money from a person’s paycheck or checking account
If you go with the first approach, you may be able to find the person’s banking info if either of you ever wrote a check to each other. Your bank should have their account info either on the back of a cancelled check you wrote to them, or on a check of theirs that you deposited into your account in the past.
If you can’t find any paper trail, have a friend write the person a small check. You’ll get the account info when the check clears and is returned in your friend’s bank statement. Then you can garnish the defendant’s bank account with that info.
As to exact procedure to do this, the clerk of court will be able to provide the necessary forms and tell you what you need to know. The procedure will vary by state.
Putting a lien on a defendant’s house
To put a lien on a property, you typically have to file it with the land records office in the county where the home is located.
Once that lien is on there, it’s like a drag on the home. If the defendant wants to sell or refinance their house, they have to pay off the lien first. So you’ll usually get your money, but there may be a long waiting period until you can collect.
The procedure for putting a lien on a property varies by state and locality. Check with your local land records office.
Seizing the person’s automobiles
In some states, you may be able to take your writ of judgment to the state department of revenue and find out if the person has a clear title (with no loan) to any vehicle or vehicles. If the person does, the court will seize those vehicles and auction them off to satisfy your judgment.
Getting the info you need: The role of interrogatories
Of course, the ability to garnish a paycheck or seize an automobile hinges on having information about a defendant’s assets.
To get the right info, you can force your adversary to disclose info about themselves — such as where they work, where they bank and what property they own — by sending them something called “interrogatories.”
Interrogatories are really just a list of questions and requests for specific info, such as:
- Defendant’s full name, phone number and address
- Name, address and phone number of defendant’s employer
- Request for disclosure of defendant’s real estate assets
- Request for disclosure of business assets
- Name, address and phone number of all persons who owe the defendant money
- Name and addresses of banks the defendant does business with, along with relevant account numbers
- Request for disclosure of defendant’s motor vehicle assets — including year, make, model, color and VIN
The thing about interrogatories is that they must be answered under oath and within 30 days of receipt. The defendant’s responses must be sent to both you, as the plaintiff, and the court. If a defendant refuses to answer, he or she will face contempt of court charges.