Enforcement of a Judgment

Disclaimer

Below you will find some general information about enforcing judgments in California. Different states have different laws with respect to enforcement of judgments. This page provides a basic, general discussion of enforcement of judgment. There are books written about various facets of the subject, and this is not an attempt at writing one.

This general information may not apply to you, and it is not intended as a legal opinion or legal advice.

Enforcement of Judgments

When one side wins a lawsuit they obtain a judgment which is a piece of paper that basically says X shall pay Y a certain amount of money. Unfortunately judgments do not enforce themselves. Sometimes the debtor pays voluntarily. This will typically happen when there is insurance coverage or the debtor has the resources to pay and wants to avoid the inconvenience of enforcement activity. Otherwise, most judgments are not resolved this easily. Some companies and individuals structure their affairs to try to avoid having to pay creditors. While a judgment represents a declaration of rights as to the parties and is the end result of the litigation process, it may be worthless if not enforced. In addition, the judgment may just be the beginning of the real work.

The good news, however, is that the law gives the holder of a judgment a great deal of power to enforce it. A judgment is enforceable for ten years in California and can be renewed indefinitely into the future by making a simple, timely application to the court. During the life of the judgment you can, for example, put liens on real property and some forms of personal property. You also have the right to use the power of the court take money or property to satisfy the judgment. For example, you can garnish wages, drain bank accounts, and even have a sheriff or a keeper operate a business and take the proceeds to pay your judgment. You can sell property including cars and real estate. You can force the judgment debtor to come to court to discuss their assets, and they can be jailed for failing to comply.

Not all of a debtor's property is subject to levy under a writ of execution or garnishment. There are limits in the law, called exemptions, which allow a debtor to keep certain kinds of property safe from being used to pay a judgment. Some exemptions are calculated by dollar amount while other exemptions are by the category of the property. For example a debtor may safeguard household goods and furnishings to the extent they are ordinarily and reasonably necessary to, and used by, the judgment debtor and their family in their household. Tools and business equipment are exempt up to a dollar amount. There are other exemptions for other kinds of property including equity in vehicles and homes.

Typically judgments are paid through active enforcement efforts for two reasons. First you can seize money or property sufficient to pay the judgment. The second is the debtor may want to settle to avoid the inconvenience and disruption of being the subject of enforcement activity.

The particular approach for enforcing a judgment depends on the circumstances of the creditor, the debtor, the amount of money involved, and what kinds of money or property the debtor has. Much also depends on information which is usually in short supply. In other words, there are many options and possible approaches. The best strategy in one case may not work in another.