What happens after I win a small claims judgment?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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While a losing defendant may voluntarily pay a court judgment, the winning party often must collect it themselves to get the court’s award or judgment turned into cash-in-hand. If the losing defendant doesn’t have the means to pay the judgment, or have any property that is subject to collection, you may win a court judgment but never collect anything. In fact many small claims court judgments are never satisfied.

To collect a judgment, you must obtain proof from your small claims court that you have the right to collect. This is called a writ of execution, writ of garnishment, or writ of attachment. Once you have your writ, give it to your local sheriff with instructions on your collection method. Your sheriff will serve papers to the debtor, requesting payment for the small claims court judgment.

Another method to consider is a lien on property. If the debtor has property, you can claim part of its value. You can create a real estate lien by registering your judgment with the land records office in the county where the debtor owns real estate. You won’t get any money until the property is sold or transferred as you will be paid from those proceeds. If the owner sells the property, you can collect the court judgment owed to you, plus post-judgment costs and interests.

You could also consider wage garnishment. If the debtor has a job, you can collect up to 25% of his or her wages until the court judgment is paid. Give your sheriff or other court officer information about the judgment and where the debtor works. But there are restrictions–if the person can prove the money is being used for basic support, you can’t garnish his or her wages. The same goes if they are already subject to another garnishment, are a federal or military employee or are on public welfare support. Either the sheriff or court clerk can walk you through the court judgment collection process if you have questions.

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