You’ve won your case and the judge awarded you damages, now how do you actually collect the money? In an ideal situation, the defendant who owes you money (let’s call him “the debtor”) would either pay you (we’ll call you “the creditor”) a lump sum or arrange a payment plan to pay you in full—however, this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you have to collect the money yourself.
Before you go running back to court, send a written demand for payment. Write the debtor a letter stating the amount to pay you and how to pay. Let the debtor know you intend on taking action to collect your judgment should they choose to ignore your letter. It’s possible this could resolve your issue.
If the other side ignores your request for payment, then it’s time to enforce your judgment with the help of the court. Eventually, you could recover what you’re owed out of the debtor’s paycheck, bank account, or even cash register if the debtor is a business—however, you’ll have to do some information gathering before you can count your cash. Follow the steps below to find out what’s available for collection, then how to collect it.
STEP 1: DETERMINE WHAT’S AVAILABLE
Before you can go after an asset for recovery, you need to find what assets are available to recover from. In California, this is done by using a Judicial Council Form, Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (SC-133). It’s the debtor’s job to fill out this form and return it to the creditor within 30 days of judgment (as long as they don’t take action to challenge the ruling). As with other court procedures, things may be different depending on what county your case is in. Many counties in California will include the SC-133 along with the actual judgment to the debtor, whether that be by mail or in the courtroom. If this isn’t the norm for your local county, don’t worry—page 2 of the judgment explicitly states the debtor is to provide the SC-133 should they not pay the judgment.
What you’ll learn from the SC-133:
The SC-133 will provide the information you need in order to collect your judgment against a debtor who hasn’t paid. On a debtor’s SC-133, you’ll learn the following:
- Where the debtor works, how much they get paid, and how often.
- Where the debtor’s spouse works.
- How much money the debtor has in cash and in the bank.
- The names, account numbers, and balances of all bank accounts.
- All property the debtor owns whether it be real estate, vehicles, boats, or valuable personal property like jewelry and art.
What if the debtor does not mail you an SC-133?
If the debtor does not mail you the SC-133, you’re not out of options. You can get an order from the court for the debtor to appear in person with the form, as well as answer questions—this is called a “debtor’s examination.”
The creditor starts by filing an Order to Produce Statements of Assets and to Appear for Examination (SC-134). This lets the court know that you have not received the Statement of Assets and need the court to intervene. File three copies of this form with the court clerk, who will give you a court date for the debtor’s examination. The clerk will return two copies to you: one of which you will keep, and the other you will have personally served upon the debtor along with a blank Statement of Assets. Once the debtor has been served (at least 10 days before the hearing date), submit a proof of service to the court (using the SC-104 form).
It’s important to remember this hearing isn’t just for the debtor to appear at—you must attend as well.
How to make the debtor provide evidence:
You can force the debtor to bring documents evidencing his or her assets by using a subpoena. Along with your Order to Produce Statement of Assets and to Appear for Examination (SC-134), include a Small Claims Subpoena and Declaration (SC-107) when you go to file at the clerk’s office. The clerk will file your forms and “issue” your subpoena (making it valid).
Up next, complete your subpoena. Start by filling in the details of the subpoenaed party and the date and time of the debtor’s examination. On the second page, check the boxes indicating which documents are requested, why there is good cause to order the production of documents, and how the documents are relevant to the case. Include the subpoena along with the documents you serve on the debtor, and they will be ordered to bring the documents requested on the subpoena.
With a subpoena you can request the following documents:
- Bank statements
- Stock certificates
- Registration and ownership information for vehicles
- Deeds to property owned or being purchased by the debtor
You might be wondering whether or not you need to use the subpoena. Subpoenaing documents may not be necessary for every small claim case. If you want to examine the document at the debtor’s examination, then subpoenaing the documents will be necessary.
So when would it be a good idea to use the subpoena? It can be helpful in situations where you have reason to believe the debtor would attempt to conceal or lie about assets, or maybe they work a job with inconsistent wages like driving rideshare. It could also be useful if you need to see documents that could violate a debtor’s privacy rights (let’s say you’re in a damages dispute in a car accident case and you need to see a hospital bill that has private medical information).
STEP 2: GO AFTER IT
So you have determined what assets are available for recovery and had your debtor’s examination—how do you turn this into money in your pocket? Start by filing a Writ of Execution and choose the best option for recovery for your case.
Complete and file a Writ of Execution (EJ-130)
This form is used to begin the recovery for a judgment. When selecting what boxes to check in the “caption” (i.e. the information in the large rectangle at the top of the form), check the box next to “Execution (Money Judgment)” then the box to the right, “Limited Civil Cases (including Small Claims).” Complete the rest of the form with information about the debtor and the money judgment.
Include Incurred Costs
Make sure to include any costs you have incurred after the judgment was entered; these can
include filing fees for enforcement documents, as well as fees paid to the sheriff’s office to deliver and execute the forms (for more information on what costs are recoverable, see Costs Recoverable in Small Claims Court.) When including post-judgment incurred costs as a part of your recovery, you must also submit what’s called a “Memorandum of Costs.” Conveniently, there is another Judicial Council form that can easily lay out the costs incurred after judgment, Memorandum of Costs After Judgment, Acknowledgment of Credit, and Declaration of Accrued Interest (MC-012).
Choose your recovery method
There are multiple options to recover, depending on if the debtor is an individual or a business.
Levy the Debtor’s wages
If the debtor is employed, you can ensure you get a portion of his or her paycheck. This is done by levying their wages—meaning a lien, which is a legal claim, is placed on the wage income, and a portion is set aside to pay you.
You will know if a debtor is employed from their Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (SC-133), the information provided at the debtor’s examination, or documents produced as a result of a subpoena.
Take your forms and file them at the courthouse. Once they are filed, the court will return stamped copies to you, along with a Notice of Levy (EJ-150). Take these forms, along with an Application for Earnings Withholding Order (Wage Garnishment) (WG-001), to the Sheriff’s office. A deputy will execute the legal claim for a fee.
Garnish bank accounts
Take two copies of your filed Writ of Execution (EJ-130)(and Memorandum of Costs if applicable (MC-012)) to the Sheriff’s office. Because a debtor’s bank account information is not listed on the writ, you’ll need to make a written request of the office including the information necessary to execute the writ. Write instructions for the deputy detailing the name and address of the debtor’s bank, then sign it. The sheriff will execute the documents for a fee.
If a debtor owns real property, a judgment creditor can stake their claim in the event of a sale. By placing a lien on a property, the judgment creditor ensures he or she will get payment from the proceeds of a property sale.
To do this, start with the judicial council form Abstract of Judgment (EJ-001). Take three copies, along with the original judgment awarding you money and a Memorandum of Costs (MC-012) if applicable, to the courthouse. The court will file the original copy and return two copies to you. Keep one copy for your records, and file the last remaining copy with the county recorder’s office (i.e. “recording the abstract of judgment”). If the debtor owns property in more than one county, make sure to file a copy in each county where the debtor owns the property. Interestingly enough, a lien may be recorded in a county to ensure a creditor’s claim in future properties that the debtor may come to own.
It’s important to remember that recording an abstract of judgment doesn’t mean you will receive payment right away. But in the future, if the debtor sells or refinances property, the judgment can be paid.
When the debtor is not an individual person, but rather a business that has a cash register, a judgment creditor can literally take money out of that register (though important caveat—not personally). This is done via a “till tap” by a sheriff’s deputy.
Start by filing the Writ of Execution (EJ-130) and take two copies to the Sheriff’s office. Write a signed letter explaining you need a till tap, along with helpful information like the name, address and hours of the business debtor. A deputy will conduct the till tap for a fee. If the contents of the cash register are insufficient to satisfy the judgment, multiple till taps may be done, though a fee will be charged each time a till tap is conducted.
Similar to a “till tap,” the sheriff’s office can help a judgment creditor recover from a debtor business. While a till tap “taps” the cash register for the funds owed to the judgment creditor, a “keeper” is a sheriff’s deputy who sits in a debtor business and can recover beyond cash, to include checks or credit card payments.
To place a keeper in a debtor’s business, complete and file the Writ of Execution (EJ-130), then submit it to the sheriff’s office along with a letter requesting a keeper as well as the fee. If the business closes and the keeper hasn’t received the entire judgment amount, they can return multiple times—though this fee will be incurred each time.
Because this is more time-intensive and can potentially have more recovery, there is a higher fee for this service. For instance, the Orange County Sheriff’s office charges $240 for an 8-hour deposit, $1,300 for a 48 deposit, and $3,100 for an open-ended deposit.
Suspend Driver’s License
Another option to enforce your judgment is to suspend the Judgment Debtor’s driver’s license for non-payment. The DMV will notify the debtor of the chance to make payment
before the suspension takes effect. If the debtor doesn’t pay, the license will be suspended.
When you can seek this relief, as well as how long it lasts, depends on how much the judgment was entered for.
For judgments $1,000 or less:
You can seek a license suspension once the money judgment has gone unpaid for 90 days. The DMV will suspend the license of the driver for 90 days.
For judgments over $1,000:
If you have not received payment within 30 days of final judgment, the DMV can suspend licenses for both the driver and the true owner for up to six years.
Start by completing the local DMV form depending on how much the judgment is for. For judgments $1,000 or less, use DMV Form DL-17, Notice of Unsatisfied Judgment of $1,000 or Less. For judgments over $1,000, use form DL-30, Certificate of Facts RE Unsatisfied Judgment. Each form will include the filing fee for the action.
Submit your DMV form, fee payment, and a copy of the judgment to the civil judgment office of the DMV via mail at:
Department of Motor Vehicles
ATTN: Civil Judgment, Mail Station J237
P.O. Box 942884
Sacramento, CA 94284-0884
STEP 3: Report Payment
Finally, once a creditor receives payment the court must be notified. When a payment is considered made can depend on the type of enforcement method the judgment creditor chose. A judgment is considered paid when either the entire monetary amount is satisfied or an abstract of judgment has been recorded with a county.
The judgment creditor, upon receiving payment of the judgment, is required to submit the judicial council form Acknowledgement of Satisfaction of Judgment (EJ-100) with the courthouse. Once you file three copies the court will keep the original, keep a copy for your records and mail the last remaining copy to the judgment debtor.