If you have ever been in small claims court, you know that collecting a judgment awarded to you is a difficult matter, and a task you must do yourself. Even in the best of times, it’s difficult to collect a judgement, but in tough economic times with so many people out of work it may seem to be an impossible task.
Don’t give up hope – it is possible with a little creativity and patience!
Small Claims Court is a court where you can sue someone for a small amount of money. The maximum amount is decided by state law and ranges from $2,500 to $10,000. It is a court that is more informal and where procedures are simplified so that an individual can handle their own case. Depending on the state, lawyers may or may not be allowed to represent you. Once you have presented your case in court, the judge will either grant or deny your claim. If he/she grants your claim, you will be entitled to collect a judgment not exceeding the state’s maximum.
Now, however, you are on your own; the court will not force payment or even help in your collection efforts.
You do have choices here. You can collect it on your own; hire an attorney to assist you; or hire a third party collection agency to help you collect your money. Consider this however, lawyers are expensive and third party collection agencies will charge a percentage of what they collect. In good economic times collection is difficult, but in these economic times you may just be throwing good money after bad. Upon consideration, you may determine it is not economically feasible to hire someone for your relatively small judgment.
While there are several methods that can be used to collect a judgment – wage garnishments; bank garnishments; levies on personal property; and rental garnishments – these can cost more than they are worth if the person has no job, no significant bank accounts, and no property that is worth anywhere near your award.
So you need to consider other options. First, learn to consider this a long term investment and don’t try to rush it. Judgment awards expire unless you keep extending them; so be sure you do. Additionally, put a lien on the debtor’s real estate because some day he may sell it and you will be able to collect. Also, if you keep extending your judgment, the person may be re-employed and wage or bank garnishment may again be an option. If you try each option, and are still not having success, it is important that you know when to call it quits. Although lawyers and collection agencies are expensive, there are places where you can get assistance. While the court cannot help with collection, most states have very good self-help guides that offer some very good information. Bar Associations and Courts also have information that can help you in your efforts to collect on a judgement.
In addition, there are some networks, websites, and organizations that offer assistance as well. These include Nolo.com, a legal assistance site, with free books and articles; collectyourjudgment.org which offers live and onsite assistance in every state; the Lectric Law Library is another resource that can be helpful. In addition there are any number of local law firms and law websites that often publish articles on this subject.