This is an all too common scenario. Someone owes you money. You take them to court. You get awarded a monetary judgment. You now expect the debtor to pay, but the debtor still refuses to pay. What are your options?
Your options depend on where you obtained the judgment. You either obtained the judgment in one of the many district courts in Pennsylvania or you obtained it in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas. The district courts are for cases that involve damages less than $12,000.00. If you were awarded a judgment in the district court, your remedies are limited to seizing the tangible property of the debtor and selling them through a court authorized sheriff sale. If, however, the judgment was obtain in the Court of Common Pleas, then you can attach a lien on the debtor’s home, search and seize bank accounts, and seize and sell the tangible property. In Pennsylvania, you generally cannot garnish wages except in very limited situations, so this is usually not an option.
If the judgment is obtained in the district court, you can transfer the judgment to the Court of Common Pleas. This requires procedural formalities and court filings. Often, individuals need an attorney to assist them with this process. The process is quite simple and should be fairly inexpensive for an attorney. The attorney will file certain forms with the Prothonotary‘s office in the appropriate county. The Prothonotary’s office will record the judgment in the county docket as if the judgment was originally obtained in the Court of Common Pleas.
Once the judgment is properly recorded in the Prothonotary’s office, it will be entered into the Judgment Index and it will automatically attach as a lien to any real property (home or land) owned by the debtor. This will last for five years, but it can be revived for an additional five years. During this time, the debtor cannot sell the property unless and until the lien is satisfied through payment. This can happen during the closing on the sale of the property. You could proceed with a forced sale of the home, but this is often not advised when there is a mortgage and other liens that stand in line to be paid ahead of you. Also, forcing a sale is a long process and could get expensive.
When the judgment is recorded with the Prothonotary, you have the right to conduct post-judgment discovery. This can include a deposition of the debtor, written interrogatories to the debtor, and a request for the debtor to produce documents. These methods are used to compel the debtor to disclose the debtor’s assets. If assets are disclosed, then you can proceed with remedies to take those assets. You could also hire an investigator to search for assets. Investigators can try to locate bank accounts, houses, boats, and other property through a public records search. If an asset such as a bank account is revealed, then your debt collection attorney can take the necessary legal steps to take those assets to satisfy the judgment.
Many people obtain a judgment in the district court without the assistance of an attorney. When the judgment is transferred to the Court of Common Pleas, hiring an attorney is recommended. There are procedures that must be strictly followed including filing requirements, notice to the debtor, and time limitations. Debt collection attorneys are familiar with these procedural rules and can help you navigate through them to expeditiously enforce your judgment remedies. As is often the case, if the judgment is for a relatively small sum, then hiring an attorney may not make financial sense. You certainly do not want to pay an attorney more than what the judgment is worth. Attorneys’ fees are often awarded by the court during the post judgment collection process, so it is always recommended that you discuss your case with a debt collection attorney to discuss fees and an action plan that makes sense for both you and the attorney.