QUICK ANSWER: A judgment is a court order that decides a lawsuit. A collector who wins a judgment against you is no longer required to prove the debt and can take steps to force you to pay.
If you don’t pay a debt, the creditor will try to get you to voluntarily pay. Lenders will call and send letters, hire debt collectors, and leverage your fear of poor credit as a way of convincing you to resolve the account.
Regardless of the amount of pressure employed, however, paying a debt is purely voluntary. Nobody is going to physically force you to withdraw money from your bank account. You either pay the bill or not.
Your choices become more limited once a collector gets the court system involved in the process. A collection lawsuit submits the issue to a judge who decides whether you owe money to the creditor and, if so, the exact amount due.
A judgment is the court’s final decision as to the outcome of litigation. This signals the end of the case and provides the last word on liability.
There is nothing to argue about once the court issues the judgment.
The Road to Judgment Begins With a Lawsuit
A judgment is the end-product of a lawsuit. Though collectors would like you to believe otherwise, there’s no way to shortcut the process and get a judgment against you without first filing a case. And a lawsuit comes with precise procedures and timelines.
Someone begins a lawsuit by filing a Summons and Complaint; the legal term for this person (or company) is the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff must also deliver copies of these documents to the person or people being sued; this is the Defendant.
The Defendant is required to file a response within a short period after receiving the Summons and Complaint. It is at this point that the case enters into the discovery phase of litigation.
Three Ways to Get a Judgment
A collector can get a judgment against you after trial or as the result of a negotiated settlement. The most common outcome, however, is a judgment based on a failure to respond to the lawsuit. Though the method of obtaining a money judgment may vary, the impact is the same.
Judgment After Trial: A lawsuit ends with a trial heard by either a jury or simply a judge. After hearing all of the evidence presented by the Plaintiff and Defendant, the judge or jury decides the case. That decision is recorded as a judgment.
Consent Judgment: The parties to the lawsuit are always free to negotiate a settlement at any point in the process, and courts usually encourage this form of voluntary resolution. However, if both sides agree, the terms of that settlement are typically finalized as a consent judgment.
Default Judgment: When someone begins a lawsuit, but the other person doesn’t respond within the time permitted to law, the judge will decide the case based solely on the claims made in the Complaint. The resulting judgment is called a default judgment.
The Impact of a Judgment
Before filing a lawsuit against you, a creditor gets paid if they can get you to do so voluntarily. Winning a judgment removes the element of choice, giving the collector the ability to force payment.
The most common enforcement mechanisms are wage garnishment, seizing bank accounts, and putting a lien on real estate and personal property. In some situations, a judgment creditor may also be able to get your driver’s license or professional license suspended.
California’s community property laws also allow the creditor to collect it to satisfy a judgment against either spouse if you’re legally married.
When Faced With a Judgment, Act Immediately
Though a judgment finalizes your liability to pay a debt, it doesn’t need to cause financial ruin. Options such as settlement, voluntary repayment, and bankruptcy can help you recover from the financial burden so you can move on with your life.
Talking with a lawyer can help you understand your options and quickly create a plan to deal with the judgment. If you’re interested, reach out to me so we can review your choices.