After the Judgment ... Collecting or Satisfying the Judgment
You’ll have to collect the judgment yourself if you win in small claims court. The court will not collect it for you. If you’re the prevailing party (the judgment creditor) and haven’t received the money the judge awarded to you, make sure that the other party (the judgment debtor) is aware of the judgment and its amount, and also knows where to mail payment.
Often a personal note to the judgment debtor asking that the judgment be paid is all that is needed to end the dispute. If you believe that the judgment debtor may not have enough income or assets to pay in full, consider offering to accept weekly or monthly payments, or even waiving (forgiving) interest or part of the principal amount owing, in exchange for full payment of the rest.
The small claims court judgment becomes final and enforceable 30 days after the small claims clerk has delivered or mailed the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130), provided that the defendant hasn’t filed a timely Notice of Appeal (Form SC-140) or a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment and Declaration (Form SC-135). If the defendant files an appeal and loses, the judgment becomes enforceable after transfer of the case back to the small claims court. Enforcement of the judgment is stayed automatically for 30 days from the date of mailing in order to give time for the defendant to either file an appeal or a motion to vacate. This means that the plaintiff cannot collect the judgment for 30 days from the date it is mailed out. Even if the judge gave the judgment in open court, the plaintiff must wait 30 days from the date the judgment form is mailed out to the parties before starting collection efforts. Obviously, if the defendant files an appeal within those 30 days, the plaintiff will not be able to collect the judgment unless he or she prevails at the trial de novo. If the defendant filed a motion to vacate and it is denied, the judgment is stayed for another 10 days for the defendant to appeal the denial. There is no stay period if the plaintiff wins a judgment at a trial de novo, and Plaintiff can begin collection efforts right away (i.e., getting a writ of execution).
If the court awards the other party a judgment against you, and you don’t intend to appeal, it’s better to pay the judgment as soon as possible, since that will save you from having to pay interest on the unpaid judgment debt. If you can’t afford to pay it in full, consider making an offer to make weekly or monthly payments in amounts you can afford. If the judgment creditor won’t accept payment by installments, the court will issue an order allowing you to pay by installments in amounts that you can afford (see Installment payments).
Once you have fully paid the judgment debt (including any interest and allowable costs which have accrued since the hearing), the judgment creditor is required to complete, sign, and file with the small claims court an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form SC-290). It’s available for printing at the Judicial Council's self-help Web site.
If a judgment against you becomes final, and you don’t pay it within 30 days, you must complete a Judgment debtor’s Judgment Debtor's Statement of Assets (Form SC-133) and send the completed form to the judgment creditor. This form, which you receive along with the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130), requires you to provide information concerning your property and sources of income. The judgment creditor can then use that information to assist in collecting the amount you owe. If you don’t complete and mail the Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (Form SC-133) as required, the judgment creditor may bring you into court to complete this form by filing an Application and Order to Produce Statement of Assets and to Appear for examination (Form SC-134). This will require you to submit a completed Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (Form SC-133) to the court.
- Payment to the court - A judgment debtor may pay the amount of the judgment directly to the court. The judgment debtor can do this by completing a Request to Pay Judgment to Court (Form SC-145), and submitting the amount of the total judgment, including the plaintiff ’s post-judgment costs and interest. The court will then enter an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form SC-290).There are several reasons that you might want to make payment directly to the court: (1) You may wish to avoid contact with the plaintiff, (2) You can’t find the plaintiff, or (3) You may wish to end the case immediately. The small claims clerk (and not the judgment creditor) then completes and files an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form SC-290), which documents your payment. Of course, you also may (and ordinarily should) pay the other party directly. In either case, the court clerk collects all fees related to the enforcement of the judgment.
- Installment payments - If a judgment debtor is willing to pay the judgment but can’t pay the entire judgment debt at one time, then the judgment debtor may ask the court for authorization to pay the amount of the judgment in installments. The judgment debtor should first ask the judgment creditor if the judgment creditor is willing to accept weekly or monthly payments. (See the information on installment payments in "Have You Tried to Settle the Dispute Yourself?") If the judgment creditor insists on receiving the full amount of the judgment, or if both parties can’t agree on an installment payment plan, the judgment debtor can file a request to Make Payments (Form SC-220). This form must be filed with a Financial Statement Form EJ-165). Both the request form and the financial statement form that you file are then mailed to the judgment creditor by the court. The judgment creditor can either oppose your request, or agree to it by filing a response to request to Make Payments (Form SC-221). A hearing may or may not be held.
- Protecting property or income from collection - A judgment debtor may be able to lawfully protect some or all of the judgment debtor’s assets (property) and sources of income from being taken to pay the judgment. It may be possible to protect necessities of life such as one’s house, furniture, clothes, car (within certain price limitations), tools of the trade, certain other personal property, and all or a portion of one’s earnings. In addition, workers’ compensation, unemployment, pension, Social Security, welfare, or insurance payments are protected and can’t be taken to satisfy a judgment. At your request, the small claims court clerk or a small claims adviser can give you a list of assets that are protected (exempt assets) in California. This information is itemized in a court form entitled exemptions From the enforcement of Judgments (Form EJ-155).
CAUTION: Some assets of a judgment debtor are automatically protected, but in the case of others, you must ask the court to determine that the assets are exempt from enforcement action. To protect these assets, you must file a Claim of exemption (Form EJ-160) within 10 days after you receive notice that the judgment creditor is taking enforcement action against the particular asset. You can obtain this form from the small claims clerk or the sheriff's or marshal’s office. List the property you believe is exempt. If enforcement action is taken against your earnings, use the Claim of Exemption (Wage Garnishment) (Form WG-006) and list all of your income and expenses. The court will decide which assets and how much of your earnings are protected from collection. To enjoy these rights, you must act quickly (within 10 days).
This section highlights ways for you to enforce (collect) your judgment using available court procedures. The following are some steps that you can take to try to enforce a judgment if the judgment debtor refuses to pay it voluntarily:
- Locate the judgment debtor - If you do not already know how to communicate with the judgment debtor, first get the judgment debtor’s address and telephone number, so that you can communicate an informal request for payment to the judgment debtor or the judgment debtor’s representative. It’s also helpful, and may be necessary, to determine where the judgment debtor is employed, at what bank or other place the judgment debtor has a checking or savings account, and what other real estate or personal property the judgment debtor may own. For ways to locate the other party, see "Locating the Other Party".
- Levy execution on the debtor’s wages - A wage garnishment orders the judgment debtor’s employer to periodically give the sheriff, who then sends you part of the judgment debtor’s wages until the debt is paid. To levy execution on (garnish) wages, you need to complete a Writ of Execution (Form EJ-130), which (when issued by the court) directs the sheriff to enforce your judgment. A Writ of Execution is issued by the small claims clerk and only becomes effective then. You’ll also need to complete and pay a fee for the issuance of an Application for Earnings Withholding Order (Wage Garnishment) (Form WG-001).
- Levy execution on the debtor’s checking or other account (bank levy) - A bank levy means that money will be taken from the debtor’s bank, checking or savings account to pay the judgment. You’ll need the name and branch address of the bank or other financial institution. Get a Writ of Execution (Form EJ-130) from the small claims clerk. There is a fee of $15 for issuing a Writ of Execution.
- Record an Abstract of Judgment - Recording an Abstract of Judgment -Civil and Small Claims (Form EJ-001) puts a lien on any land, house, or other building the debtor owns in the county where it is recorded. Obtain an Abstract of Judgment - Civil and Small Claims (Form EJ-001) from the small claims clerk, and record it with the county recorder in each county where the debtor owns or may own real property. If the property is sold with title insurance, the debt will be paid out of the proceeds of the sale. The clerk charges a fee of $15 for issuing an Abstract of Judgment. Fees also must be paid to a county recorder for recording it.
- Have the sheriff do a “till tap” - If the debtor is a business with a cash register, the sheriff can go to the address of the business and take enough money out of the cash register to pay the judgment debt and the sheriff ’s fee. First complete a Writ of execution (Form EJ-130), request the small claims clerk issue it, and take it to the sheriff. Then instruct the sheriff in writing to do a “till tap.” A typical sheriff's fee for a till tap is $85, paid in advance to the sheriff. You must know the name and address of the business. If there isn’t enough money in the cash register to pay the judgment debt, you’ll have to request subsequent till taps and be prepared to pay another fee each time the sheriff goes back.
- Put a “keeper” in the debtor’s business - If the judgment debtor is a business, the sheriff will, for a fee, remain in the judgment debtor’s business establishment and take all the funds that come in until the judgment is paid. The keeper can collect cash, checks, and bank credit card drafts. You’ll need the name and address of the business. Complete a Writ of Execution (Form EJ-130), have the clerk issue it, and take it to the sheriff. Instruct the sheriff in writing that you desire to put a keeper in the business. You will need to pay the sheriff substantial fees up-front. If the debtor closes the business while the sheriff is there, you’ll have to pay another fee each time the sheriff goes back.
- Conduct a judgment debtor’s examination - In an examination of a judgment debtor, the judgment debtor is ordered to appear in court to answer your questions about the existence, location, and amount or value of the judgment debtor’s salary, other income sources, bank accounts, tangible property, and anything else that could be used to generate proceeds to pay the judgment. If you wish, you can also subpoena the debtor’s bank books, property deeds, paycheck stubs, and similar documents and require the judgment debtor to bring them to the hearing. At the examination, you may have the judge order the judgment debtor to turn over any assets in the judgment debtor’s possession. You’ll need to complete and pay a fee for an Application and Order for Appearance and Examination (Form EJ-125). If you want the judgment debtor to also bring certain documents, you should also ask the small claims clerk to issue a Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and declaration (Form SC-107). The Application and Order for Appearance and Examination (and the subpoena if you want to serve that too) must be served on the debtor by the sheriff or a registered process server, or by a private person specially appointed by court order at the judgement creditor’s request. The judgment debtor must reside or have a place of business within 150 miles of the court. If you do not know where the judgment debtor currently resides, see discussion on "Locating the Other Party".
CAUTION: A judgment debtor’s examination works well when the judgment debtor cooperates by appearing at the examination and by producing the requested documents. However, judgment creditors may find the judgment debtor’s examination process to be highly frustrating for several reasons. Some judgment debtors are hard to find and serve, while others do not show up at all or show up without the requested documents. The penalty for the judgment debtor not appearing at a judgment debtor’s examination is a bench warrant, assuming the judgment debtor was served properly. However, the judgment creditor has to pay the fees for the service of the bench warrant, and it is still not a guarantee that he or she will receive the necessary information to begin the collection process. As such, judgment creditors should ensure that the judgment debtor’s examination process is an appropriate one for their situation.
- Judgment collection companies - The judgment creditor may decide to assign their judgment to a judgment collection company. Judgment collection companies usually do not charge an initial fee, and they do all of the collection work. If the judgment collection company collects the judgment, it usually takes a percentage of what it has collected. Be mindful that if you have hired a collection company and the judgment debtor decides to pay you directly, the collection company still may request that you pay them a percentage of the money you have received from the judgment debtor. Be sure you read the contract and understand all the terms.
- Suspend the judgment debtor’s driver’s license - If you obtained a judgment for $750 or less in an auto accident case and the judgment isn’t paid within 30 days after the judgment becomes final, you may want to consider having the debtor’s driver’s license suspended for 90 days. You must complete DMV Form DL17. If your judgment is for more than $750, you may have the license suspended indefinitely until the defendant pays the judgment. You do this by completing DMV Form DL30. You can view and print these forms by visiting the DMV's Web site, or obtain them from local offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). For further information, call the DMV’s Civil Judgment Unit at (916) 657-7573.
Debtors are protected by Federal and California statutes and court decisions that create liability for certain abusive or unfair debt collection tactics. Debt collection agencies and businesses that regularly collect their own debts are generally prohibited from engaging in unfair or deceptive practices and from making false or misleading statements to collect a consumer debt. It is unlawful for such a collector to harass a consumer debtor, to request more than basic location information about the debtor from another person, to tell the debtor’s employer or others that the debtor owes a debt (except in the course of wage garnishment proceedings), or to contact the debtor before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., or at any inconvenient time or place.
If you have questions or concerns regarding permissible debt collection activities, contact your small claims adviser, consult an attorney, or call the Federal Trade Commission (F TC) at its toll-free number, 1-877-F TC-HELP ((877) 382-4357). You may file a complaint at the FTC's Web site or with the California Attorney General's Public Inquiry Unit.
After the judgment debtor has paid the judgment debt in full (or a lesser amount if the parties agree to it), the judgment creditor must sign the short Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment portion of the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) and file it with the small claims court. Since completing this form is like giving a receipt, it’s needed to end the case. If you have lost that document, print out a Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) or an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form SC-290) at the Judicial Council's self-help Web site.
If the judgment creditor has recorded an Abstract of Judgment-Civil and Small Claims (Form EJ-001) (see page 40) in any county where the judgment debtor owns real property, the longer Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form EJ-100) must be used when payment in full is received. The judgment creditor must sign it before a notary public, and the signed and notarized document must be recorded with the county recorder of that county.
If the judgment debtor has paid the judgment in full and the judgment creditor doesn’t complete and file an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form EJ-100) with the court after the judgment debtor has requested it, the judgment debtor may ask the small claims court for help. If sufficient proof of payment is provided—for example, a cash receipt signed by the judgment creditor, or a canceled check or money order made out to and endorsed by the judgment creditor—the small claims court can issue an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form EJ-100). If a judgment creditor does not file an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form EJ-100) within 14 days after receiving a written request by a judgment debtor, the judgment creditor is liable to the judgment debtor for any resulting losses and a monetary penalty.