How Do I Collect on a Small Claims Judgment?

Collecting Small Claims Judgment
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You have won your case in small claims court, and the judge has issued a judgment against the other party for payment to you and for court costs. Now you must collect on that judgment. It is not as easy as it sounds ​because it is likely that the losing party will be reluctant to pay, but you do have some options for collecting this money.

It surprises people to learn that winning a case doesn't mean that you automatically get paid. Many debtors don't pay because they can't, and some are difficult to find to get payment. 

How a Judgment is Issued

If the judge in small claims court rules in your favor, or if a default judgment is issued because the defendant fails to appear or defend the case, the court will issue a judgment for a specific amount of money. This amount will include court costs as well as the amount the court has stipulated you be paid.

If the other party appeals the Court's decision, he or she is required to put up an Appeal Bond, guaranteeing payment if the appeal is denied. This may help you get your money, but you will have to wait until the appeal is heard.

Options for Getting Paid

If the other party does not voluntarily offer to pay you, you must decide how to proceed to get your payment.

You have several options:

  • You can request the Court to require that the other party make installment payments.
  • If the debtor has personal property that has value, the court may give you a lien against this property. The lien must be paid off when the property is sold. If you wait long enough, you will get your money when the property is sold.
  • You can contact the other party and discuss payment, including payment terms.
  • You may ask the Court to garnish the person's wages or seize property owned (personal bank accounts) to pay off your debt.

    Collecting a Judgment in Your State

    Many states have specific procedures to follow to help individuals and companies collect small claims judgments. In California, for example, the debtor must give the Court a statement of assets. You can then use these assets to decide if you want to put a lien on one to collect. In another example, Florida allows you to file a judgment lien certificate to help you put a lien on the personal property of someone who owes you money. 

    If the other party does not agree to voluntary payments or has stopped making payments on an installment agreement, some states (Arizona, for example) will allow you to file an Affidavit of Default with the Court showing the unpaid balance and requesting action.

    To find out the details of collecting on a judgment in your state, search on "collecting a judgment" and the name of your state. 

    Three Tips for Collecting on a Small Claims Judgment

    Just Ask. Don't just walk away from the courthouse shaking your head. Contact the debtor (face-to-face is best) and ask politely. Say, "When will you be able to give me the money you owe me?" 

    Be Persistent. Because people who don't pay their bills are often reluctant to pay even court-ordered payments, you will need to be persistent in asking for the money owed you.  The court doesn't automatically force a losing party to pay up; you have to actively work to get the court to garnish wages, put a lien on a property, or initiate an installment payment plan.  State laws differ, so find out your rights for getting your money, and keep going back to the court for help.  It's one of those cases where, if you don't ask, you don't get.

    When All Else Fails. The old saying, "You can't get blood from a turnip," applies here.  Sometimes, the person you have sued has no money, no assets, no job, no way to pay you back.  As the Iowa Bar Association says, "Obviously if you have reason to believe any money judgment you might receive in Small Claims Court will not be collectible because of the other party's inability to pay any judgment, you probably should not even file your claim." 

    Sad, but true.  The best way to collect in small claims court is to make sure the person you are suing has the money to pay you.