What Happens If You Win in Small Claims Court and They Don’t Pay?

See how to collect your money after winning a judgment in small claims court. You have options if the loser refuses to pay what you’re owed.

Small claims court should be a cheaper, easier way to recover money to which you’re entitled. For the most part, it is indeed cheaper. However, it’s not always easy.

Many people become so caught up in a small claims lawsuit that they forget to think about the result.

In other words, how are you going to actually recover money from the other side once you win?

Just winning a small claims case does not mean you get paid. In a lawsuit, “winning” means getting a judgment — a piece of paper from the court stating you are entitled to money.

Often, someone who loses a case will voluntarily pay the judgment and you get your money. But what happens when the person you have a judgment against refuses to pay?

This article will go over the judgment process and your options to get your money as quickly as possible.

How To Use a Small Claims Judgment To Get Paid

Gavel resting atop pile of money

If the defendant (the person you sued) is a sore loser, there are several ways for you to force them to pay what they owe. All those methods begin with one very important document: the judgment.

A small claims court judgment is a short court order — two pages at most — that says who won a lawsuit. A California judgment, for example, is a fill-in-the-blank document prepared by the court clerk.

If you won and asked the court to award you money, the judgment will say exactly how much money you are due from the defendant.

Once you have the judgment, make a list of assets the defendant can use to pay your judgment. Those assets might be in the form of money in bank accounts, real estate, or personal property.

Judgment Debtor’s Examination

When you win in small claims court and the court orders a judgment against the defendant, you become the judgment creditor and the person who owes you money is the judgment debtor.

As the judgment creditor, you have a right to know what assets the judgment debtor has. Many courts automatically ask the judgment creditor to fill out a form listing their assets, including bank accounts, real estate, and employment wages.

But if the debtor won’t cooperate, you’ll need to request another hearing. Some states call it a judgment debtor examination. It can also be called a hearing to disclose assets or a hearing regarding a statement of assets.

In this hearing, the defendant will give sworn testimony, just as if they were being called as a witness in a trial. Also like in a trial, lying in a judgment debtor examination is against the law. The defendant will have to testify about their sources of income and what property they own.

The information from the hearing can then be used to pursue payment of the judgment. You might be able to take the defendant’s money out of the bank, garnish their wages, or put a judgment lien against their house.

Record Your Small Claims Court Judgment

Woman stamps document from small claims court

Make sure that your judgment is in the public record. In most states, this is accomplished by recording the judgment in the office of your county clerk.

Contact the clerk for the county where your small claims case was decided for instructions on recording a judgment.

Typically, you’ll need the original judgment, or an abstract (summary) of the judgment, and the full, correctly spelled names of all parties to your case. You may have to pay a small recording fee.

Getting your judgment in the public record is important, both as a legal step and as a persuasion tactic. A judgment properly attached to someone’s name means that your judgment will also be attached to any records bearing their name. In most states, this means that the owner will be unable to sell their house or other property without first paying the judgment against them.

In this way, recording a judgment can be a way of “soft persuasion.” It pressures the other side to voluntarily pay you in order to conduct their business normally. If that doesn’t work, you can take the next step: actually seizing the defendant’s assets.

Seizing Assets To Pay Your Judgment

The court awards your judgment, but enforcing the judgment is up to you.

Most lawyers consider a defendant “judgment proof” if the defendant has no assets or wages. If you have a judgment-proof defendant, it makes little difference whether the legal case is solid. You can’t recover money that doesn’t exist.

Fortunately, judgment awards in most states are valid for five or more years, and may be renewed before they lapse. If the defendant’s financial circumstances change, you still have a shot at collecting your money.

Once you’ve identified the judgment debtor’s assets, you have more options.

Option 1: Seize Money in Bank Accounts

Red piggy bank inside a small vault

The most straightforward option for getting what you’re owed is taking money from a bank account, also known as a bank levy.

At the hearing or judgment debtor examination, you should have obtained a list of the other side’s bank accounts, with account numbers.

With the bank account information, you can go to the sheriff (or other process server designated by your state’s law) and place your bank levy. This allows you to get your judgment money directly out of the defendant’s bank account.

The biggest problem with this approach is that losing defendants often don’t have a great deal of money lying around. It’s possible that their bank account will not have enough money to satisfy the amount of money you are owed.

In that case, you will need to acquire money from another source.

Option 2: Garnish Wages

Person opening a check in an envelope from small claims court win

The next method of getting your money is taking it directly out of the defendant’s paycheck. This procedure is called garnishment, and it allows you to take a percentage of the defendant’s wages every month until your judgment is paid in full.

Like a bank levy, a garnishment would also be accomplished with the aid of a sheriff or other person designated by state law. Essentially, the sheriff’s office would collect the money every month and transfer it to you.

A garnishment is slower and more complicated than a bank levy. It can be more successful, though, because it doesn’t need the defendant to have a lot of money set aside to pay a judgment. By using the defendant’s future wages to pay your current judgment, it puts less strain on the defendant and gets your money relatively quickly.

Note that in some states, a small claims judgment can also order the losing party to pay a judgment on a payment plan. In other words, the court order itself will specify how payments will be made and in what period of time. If this is an option in your state, try a court-ordered payment plan before resorting to wage garnishment.

Option 3: Get a Judgment Lien

Small toy house with chains around it and gavel resting on it

Finally, if you cannot get paid quickly, you may want to assert a judgment lien over the defendant’s property. A lien is a claim against someone’s property to secure payment of a debt.

If you successfully recorded the judgment in the county clerk’s office, you can now use that judgment to assert a lien against the defendant’s real estate.

Basically, you do this by recording your judgment against a particular property. This entitles you to payment of your judgment upon sale of the property. As the judgment creditor, you can also foreclose upon that real estate lien, but this may require another court action, depending on your state.

Judgment liens can also be obtained against personal property, though the method of doing this varies by state and type of property. In the event that you believe this may be a good option in your case, you should contact a lawyer for specific legal advice.

Make Sure You Get Paid

Lawyers may tell you that a judgment against an uninsured defendant, whether from small claims court or otherwise, is not worth the paper it’s written on. As you can see, this is not always true. The fact remains that any lawsuit you bring should be filed with full awareness of who you are suing and what property they have.

You have many different options to recover the money due from a defendant. As long as you can be patient and persistent, it is possible to get judgments even from difficult defendants.

One last thing: If the defendant declares bankruptcy before you collect your money, an “automatic stay” will go into effect, meaning that you will have to stop what you are doing and follow the lead of the bankruptcy court. If this happens, or you need other legal help on this topic, please consult an attorney in your state.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>