A judgment is an order issued by a court of law. When you borrow money, you are legally required to repay the debt. This includes opening a credit card account, getting a line of credit from your bank and obtaining financing for a big purchase.
You can also become indebted to service providers. This can include utility companies, medical professionals, cell phone service providers and auto mechanic shops. They provide a service to you and then bill you, similar to a credit extension.
So, what happens when you don’t pay a bill or repay a debt? The company, creditor or collection agency has legal ways to pursue payment. One of those options is to sue you. If they are successful, the court issues a judgment against you.
What Happens After a Judgment Is Entered Against You?
The court enters a judgment against you if your creditor wins their claim or you fail to show up to court. You should receive a notice of the judgment entry in the mail. The judgment creditor can then use that court judgment to try to collect money from you. Common methods include wage garnishment, property attachments and property liens.
State laws determine how much money and what types of property a judgment creditor can collect from you. These laws vary. So, you need to look to your own state for the rules that apply. A consumer law attorney can help you understand your state’s laws on judgment collections.
What Is a Judgment on Property?
Your property includes both physical items and money. That means judgment creditors can seek debt payment from more than your wages and bank accounts. They may also take back a car you financed or other personal property. Another option is placing a lien on some of your property, such as your home.
What Property Can Be Taken to Settle a Judgment?
Creditors must follow the law when applying a judgment to take, or seize, your property. Some things are exempt—which means they can’t touch those items or properties. Some examples include the home you live in, the furnishings inside it and your clothes. State laws identify these items and set limits based on their value.
Non-exempt property can be taken to help meet a judgment debt. Your creditor can take or leverage these possessions in the following ways:
- Wage attachments. This is known as wage garnishment. When your employer receives the proper legal notice, they must withhold a percentage of your wages. These payments are sent to the judgment creditor until your debt is paid.
- The Consumer Credit Protection Act caps these types of garnishments. The limit is 25% of your disposable weekly wages or the amount you earn that’s above 30 times the minimum wage. The lessor of these two amounts applies. Some states set the cap even lower.
- Nonwage garnishment. If you’re retired, unemployed or self-employed, your bank account may be garnished instead. Here, too, there are exemptions. Veterans payments, social security and disability benefits are not eligible for nonwage garnishment. Some states add even more restrictions to the garnishment of bank funds.
- Property liens. If you own real estate, your judgment creditor may file a legal claim against it. These liens notify lenders of the creditor’s rights to your property. That way, if you sell your real property, the debt must be paid out of the proceeds. In many states, liens are placed automatically when a judgment is entered.
- Property levies. Judgments may also allow some of your non-exempt personal property to be taken through a levy. Law enforcement may seize things like valuable collections or jewelry to be sold at auction. Sales proceeds are applied to your debt.
What Can You Do to Avoid a Judgment?
Heading off a lawsuit is the best way to avoid a judgment. To do so, don’t ignore calls and correspondence from your creditor. Reach out to learn if they’ll accept suitable payment arrangements. Educate yourself on smart ways to pay debt collectors, and consider using the services of a debt management agency.
What if the loan company or debt collector has already started the lawsuit? Don’t skip court. Show up and fight. You may win if the statute of limitations has expired.
If you haven’t made a payment on an old debt for many years, you may have a successful legal defense. Most states set the time frame between four to six years. Collectors often still file suit because they win by default if you don’t show up. So, it’s important that you go to court with proof of your last date of payment.
If you successfully defeat or avoid a judgment, don’t stop there. Take some sensible steps to help you get out of and stay out of debt. Adopting these smart financial habits can also help prevent future judgment actions.
How Long Can the Judgment Creditor Pursue Payment?
The answer depends on where you live, since state laws differ. Some states limit collection efforts to five to seven years. Others allow creditors to pursue repayment for more than 20 years. With the right to renew a judgment over and over in many states, it may last indefinitely.
Judgment renewals may be repeated as often as desired or limited to two or three times. This is another state-specific issue. Judgments can also lapse or become dormant. The creditor must then act within a specific time frame to revive it.
What Happens When You Can’t Pay a Judgment Filed Against You?
If you own a limited amount of property, it may all be exempt from judgment collection efforts. Also, you may not work or only work part-time. With the CCPA cap, that may mean you don’t earn enough for garnishment.
This inability to pay your debt is called being judgment proof, collection proof or execution proof. While these circumstances exist, the judgment creditor has no legal way to collect on the debt. It’s not a permanent solution. The creditor may revisit collection efforts periodically for many years.
For a more permanent solution, you may want to consider filing bankruptcy. This process can discharge or eliminate most civil judgments for unpaid debt. Exceptions apply for things like child support, spousal support, student loans and some property liens. Speak with a bankruptcy lawyer to learn whether this will help your situation.
Can You Settle a Judgment?
If you can afford to pay a decent lump sum, you may be able to negotiate a settlement. The judgment creditor may be willing to settle if they fear you will otherwise file bankruptcy. Get the terms and settlement amount you agree upon in writing. Be sure the creditor agrees to file a satisfaction of judgment with the court after they receive your pay off.
Can a Judgment Be Challenged or Reversed?
Challenging and overturning a judgment is difficult, but not always impossible. This is the case if there were errors. Perhaps you weren’t notified of the suit or it was never your debt to begin with. Consult with an attorney to find out whether you have grounds to challenge the decision.
If you want to challenge a judgment, act fast. If you received prior notice of the case, you may have up to six months to reopen it. If you weren’t notified, you likely have up to two years to appeal. By reopening the case, you have the opportunity to fight the claim anew.
Do Credit Reports Still Include Judgments?
For many years, credit reports included judgment information. But that changed in 2017. The National Consumer Assistance Plan is responsible for creating more accurate credit data requirements. These changes resulted in the removal of civil debt judgments from credit reports.
Judgments are still a matter of public record. But the NCAP now requires that there be identifying information on these records for more accuracy. That data includes a social security number or date of birth along with the consumer’s name and address.
Public records cannot include this type of identifying information. It would violate privacy laws. This is the reason these judgments are no longer reported on credit files.
How Do You Find Out if You Have Any Judgments Against You?
You should receive a summons when you’re being sued. So, you can expect a default judgment will follow if you don’t show up in court. You can also expect a notification when a judgment is entered against you.
Mistakes happen, though. You may have missed the notice or moved to a new address. If that happens, you may not learn of the judgment until collection actions start.
What if You Find a Judgment on Your Credit Report?
Take action if you learn that judgments are still being reported by Equifax, Experian or Trans Union. The NCAP eliminated this practice. So if there’s a judgment on your report, this is definitely something that you should dispute. Credit repair services, like Lexington Law, can help you dispute the error and correct your report.
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Disclosure: Credit.com and CreditRepair.com are both owned by the same company, Progrexion Holdings Inc. John C Heath, Attorney at Law, PC, d/b/a Lexington Law Firm is an independent law firm that uses Progrexion as a provider of business and administrative services.