The case is over, you have won, and the judge has issued a final judgment in your favor. After the push to win the case, many plaintiffs find this post-judgment period a little anticlimactic. As a result, they often ask themselves and their attorneys, “Now what?” If you received a money judgment, you will undoubtedly want to know what you need to do to collect when the defendant has not simply written you a check on the spot. There are steps you and your attorney will do next to make sure you get the money you fought so hard for.
Ask for Payment
It may seem too obvious, but it surprises many defendants when a victorious plaintiff does not simply ask them for payment and provide information about how to tinder it. Although the final judgment will typically specify that payment must be made at once, many defendants wait until the plaintiff brings it up and provides payment details. So, the first thing you should do after winning a judgment is to simply contact the losing party and ask them to make the payment. This should be done through your attorney, if represented.
Sometimes the defendant may be reluctant to make the payment, despite the judgment and a polite request. Obviously, implying that failure to comply could lead to further trouble with the court can be an effective way of overcoming these objections. However, you should also make sure the defendant has your correct mailing address to send you a check, or provide alternative means of payment—like electronic funds transfer or credit card payments. Do this in writing, so there is a record that you provided all necessary information to the defendant. If that fails, you may have to be more aggressive.
Find Where the Defendant Hides His or Her Money
Often, a defendant will not have cash or other assets that can readily be liquidated to pay the full amount of a final judgment. Thus, the law provides mechanisms for investigating where the losing party might have valuable assets that can be used to pay the amount owed. This process uses the same types of discovery tools used to investigate the facts of your case, including depositions and interrogatories. These procedures allow you to locate and approximate the value of the defendant’s assets or accounts, and failing or refusing to respond can subject the defendant to sanctions (including contempt of court).
Although you may be tempted to attack assets of the defendant that you know have some special sentimental value or symbolic meaning, queries during this post judgment discovery should focus on finding the assets and accounts that can most readily satisfy the judgment. Remember: you want to get paid as quickly and easily as possible. Otherwise, collecting your judgment may be as expensive and time consuming as receiving the judgment in the first place. Thus, you will want to focus on liquid assets and big ticket items that easily convert to cash.
Common places to find actual cash include the defendant’s bank accounts, job wages, some retirement accounts (some may be immune to civil judgments), rent proceeds, investment funds, and sometimes in the defendant’s possession: like a home vault. If the available cash will not satisfy your judgment, you will turn to tracking down physical assets like cars, jewelry, electronics, home furnishings, art, etc. Some assets are exempt from forfeiture, like a homesteaded property, so talk to your attorney about what you can and cannot collect.
Once you know where all of the money hides, things get a little more complicated. Unless the defendant has had a change of heart and spontaneously offers to pay (which does occasionally happen), you may have to go to court to get an order allowing you to take the items against the defendant’s will. Bank accounts require orders garnishing the accounts. To get that order, you must serve the financial institution, allow them to raise any objections they have to the garnishment, and determine the amount in the account and how much you can legally take. Getting the actual order typically takes somewhere between a few weeks and a few months. Job wages may also be garnished in a similar manner.
Collecting from the defendant’s physical property can be even trickier. For these assets you may not only have to figure out what exists and where the defendant keeps it, but also get an order allowing someone—usually a police officer—to enter the defendant’s property, collect the items, then auction them off to satisfy your judgment.
A Judgment is Just the First Step
As you can see, the process of collecting your judgment may be either very simple or very complicated. The best way to navigate these uncertain waters is with the assistance of a qualified, experienced attorney. John J. Zidziunas & Associates will provide you with expert help in collecting your judgment, offering both advice and representation. Contact us today for a 30 minute consultation at no charge, by email or by calling 973-509-8500.
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