Can I settle a judgment by taking a car from the dealership of the person who owes me money?
Some plaintiffs assume that if they win a judgment in court against a defendant for payment of money owed then the court will take all the necessary steps to enforce the judgment. Unfortunately, this is not true. In fact, not only will you have to take the initiative and the necessary legal steps to enforce the judgment, sometimes, even if you take all the right steps, enforcing the judgment will be very difficult or impossible.
Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “Can I settle a judgment by taking a car from the dealership of the person who owes me money? They have cars on their lot and I am thinking about taking one of them for a test drive and then keeping it until this person pays me the debt owed. Is this a good idea?”
Stealing property to enforce a judgment…not a good idea
The idea of taking someone else’s property by force and holding it until they give you what you are legally owed may seem like a good idea, but it’s not. In fact, it could be illegal. Much like a landlord cannot simply lock a tenant out of their house until they make rental payments; legally enforcing a judgment requires the plaintiff to take certain legal steps.
Take matters into your own hands like it’s the old west and not only could you be facing hefty fines and penalties, you may be charged with a crime. So let’s take a closer look at steps you can take to get legally get paid the money you are owed.
Legal steps to enforce a judgment
States laws vary, and it’s important to review your state’s statutes for enforcing a judgment. Below are general steps which may be allowed.
- Talk to the court and get a certified copy of your judgment. You may have to pay a fee for this document.
- File an Abstract of Judgment. The Abstract of Judgment is very important because it makes the judgment public record and gives it legal standing.
Identify whether the debtor has real property and where it is located. If the debtor has real property you can generally get a lien placed on it by filing an Abstract of Judgment at the appropriate County Recorder’s Office.
Make sure to file an Abstract of Judgment in each county where the debtor owns personal property. Some states exempt a homestead from liens, but if the debtor has other property they will have to satisfy the judgment prior to its sale.
- Identify where the debtor has their funds deposited and go to court and get a Writ of Execution. This document, along with a copy of the judgment, can be served at the debtor’s bank.
The Writ of Execution may also allow the constable or some other legal authority to take a debtor’s non-exempt property and sell it to satisfy the judgment.
If you are able to locate non-exempt property and serve the Writ of Execution the debtor’s property will be seized, sold at the auction and the proceeds from the sale given to you to satisfy the judgment.
Consider, however, state laws will determine what assets are exempt and non-exempt, and if the debtor has no non-exempt property to sell then the Writ of Execution will accomplish very little.
- Review whether your state allows a garnishment of the debtor’s wages. Although not all states will allow garnishment of wages for unsecured debts, some do. If allowed, a Writ of Garnishment may be served at the debtor’s place of employment and a percentage of their wages withheld until their debt to you is repaid.
- Request a Turnover Order
If a debtor’s property cannot be easily seized the court may also issue a Turnover Order. This is generally only allowed if all other efforts to locate property or wages have failed. If allowed, this order will simply order the debtor to give the judgment holder enough non-exempt property to satisfy the debt.
Note: these steps could vary from what is allowed in your state.
Getting a judgment enforced is not as simple as going to someone’s house or place of business and taking what you want. In fact, not only will you have to take the proper legal steps to enforce a judgment, you may also have to pay additional legal fees or hire a private investigator to uncover assets to liquidate. Depending on the amount of money owed and the cost benefit analysis of your efforts, you may decide that the process to get the money is simply too expensive or difficult.
What should you NOT do? Do not take matters into your own hands and fail to follow the legal process for judgment enforcement.
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