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Collect Your Judgment
After you win your case in small claims court, you still need to take action to collect your judgment. (Judgment is sometimes spelled as judgement; either spelling is correct, but judgment is usually the preferred spelling rather than judgement.) The courts are generally not able to help you collect your judgment, so CollectYourJudgment.org is here to provide you with as much information as possible to make the process easier.
The Small Claim System
Small claims courts are an informal and fairly inexpensive forum for resolving certain limited types of small disputes. Typically there are no lawyers involved, the cases last an hour or less, and there isn’t a jury. While it may sound inviting, there are several factors to consider before you make your choice. First, small claims courts are state regulated and not governed by the federal system.
While there are courts of limited jurisdiction to handle small claims cases in every state, each state has a different set of procedures, a different amount limit that can be awarded, its own statute of limitations, and each has a different restriction on the use of lawyers. There may even be different procedures for different areas within the same state. The common thread is that none of these courts can guarantee that you will collect the money awarded to you by the court — something that you have probably discovered.
In addition, these courts can be in different categories depending on the state. They can be local, municipal, or county, civil courts, or magistrate courts. By filing a small claims case you are trying to avoid the more formal courts in your state — the courts that are more expensive, require an attorney, and are extremely time consuming.
If you file a claim in small claims court, remember that you must know the rules and regulations of the state in which you reside. Not knowing the court’s procedure can cause you to lose your case.
While most states allow claimants to have legal representation, it has been shown that pro se clients fare just as well as those represented by an attorney. Since the procedures are relaxed in small claims court and every step is designed for the reasonable person to understand, you might decide to save the money and not hire the attorney for the court proceeding. After all, you are looking to collect money — you may not want to lose it to attorney fees. In addition, you might need to hire the lawyer later to collect your award so spend it then.
Other states do not allow plaintiffs to have a lawyer unless the defendant hires one first; and some only allow lawyers if the judge permits it. Still others do not allow them at all.
There are monetary limits in small claims court and while they vary from state to state, most range from $2,000 to $7,500 with a few having a limit as much as $15,000. Even if someone owes you more than the limit amount, you can only ask for, and the court can only award you the maximum allowed by law. You can either decide to stay under the state maximum or decide to hire a lawyer and take your case to a higher more formal court.
No matter how much you are asking for, be sure you know the debtor’s situation. If he has no assets or property, or no job, etc., you will probably not be able to collect the judgment and so perhaps there is no justification to even file the claim. Even in the best of situation, winning in small claims court is not the same thing as getting paid.
Collecting the judgment after you win
Once your judgment is recorded (10 to 30 days depending on the state) you can begin taking steps to collect your award. Even though the court cannot ensure that the judgment is paid and has no collection authority, there are ways to collect your money — some require an attorney, some are costly, and some are simply not reasonable. However, collectyourjudgment.org can help you navigate the process, find the simplest procedure, and even put you in touch with an attorney if need be.
collecting your judgment
Article of the month
What You Should Know
Before You File a Claim
States—A Closer Look at Small Claims
This month’s focus: Michigan
- Demand Letter (before the suit is filed)
- Demand Letter (after the judgment is awarded)
Note: The first letter was originally published by one of our authors, Pat Schroeder, at http://www.thelawinsider.com/insider-tips/how-to-write-a-demand-letter/.
Collect Your Judgment Links
- ABA Guide to Solving Legal Disputes, Chapter 5, Small Claims
- ADR—Alternative Dispute Resolution: A Clients Guide to Language and Procedure, Chapter 5
- Small Claims Court Terms
Tip of the Week
September 27, 2010
If you have been awarded a judgment, waited the 30 days required, sent a demand letter giving the debtor a time limit for paying his/her debt; what should you do if you still have no money? You know that the court can do little, but before you take steps to garnish wages or bank accounts, consider suggesting negotiation or mediation if the debtor gives any impression that they want to settle the matter.