Many debt collection cases are heard in small claims courts, where individual defendants are not permitted to have an attorney represent them.

However, an individual is entitled to have an attorney represent them in small claims court after a judgment has been entered and the creditor starts trying to enforce that judgment. California CCP 116.530(a)(4).

The “enforcement” procedure is the subject of this post.

After a creditor sues and gets a judgment in the California small claims courts, he or she has several options for collecting the judgment.

In the information below, the “judgment debtor” is the Defendant who lost his or her debt collection case and had a judgment entered against him or her.

The “judgment creditor” is the Plaintiff who won the debt collection case.

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Small Claims Judgment Becomes Enforceable / Collection Activity Can Begin 30 Days After Judgment

  • The small claims court judgment becomes final and enforceable 30 days after the court clerk delivers the Notice of Entry of Judgment.
  • Collection activities (garnishments, levies, and liens) can begin at this point. This applies unless the Defendant has filed a timely Notice of Appeal or a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment.
  • Effect of Appeal: If the Defendant files an appeal and loses, the judgment becomes enforceable after the case is transferred back to the small claims court.
  • Statement of Assets: If a judgment becomes final, and the judgment debtor doesn’t pay it within 30 days, he or she must complete a form called a “Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets” and send it to the judgment creditor.  (The court clerk sends this form along with the Notice of Entry of Judgment.)

Methods a Judgment Creditor Can Use to Enforce a Judgment

  • Garnishing the debtor’s wages:  A wage garnishment orders the judgment debtor’s employer to give the sheriff part of the judgment debtor’s wages until the judgment is paid.
  • Levy on he debtor’s checking or other account:  A levy is a court order telling the judgment debtor’s bank to turn over the judgment debtor’s bank account funds to pay the judgment. The debtor does not receive advance notice that the funds will be removed from his or her account.
  • Abstract of Judgment:  Recording an Abstract of Judgment puts a lien on any land, house, or other building the debtor owns in the county where it is recorded.
  • “Till Tap”:  If the debtor is a business with a cash register, the sheriff can go to the address of the business and take enough money out of the cash register to pay the judgment.  If there isn’t enough in the register to pay the full amount of the judgment, the creditor can request additional till taps until the judgment is paid in full.
  • Judgment debtor examination:  The  judgment debtor is ordered to appear in court to answer the creditor’s questions about the judgment debtor’s salary, other income sources, bank accounts, property, and other assets that could be used to pay the judgment.  The creditor can  subpoena the debtor’s bank books, property deeds, paycheck stubs, and similar documents and require the judgment debtor to bring them to the hearing.
  • Suspending the judgment debtor’s driver’s license:  If the judgment is related to an auto accident case and is  for $750 or less, the creditor can ask the court to suspend the debtor’s driver’s license for 90 days.   If the judgment is for more than $750, the creditor can ask the court to suspend the debtor’s license indefinitely until the debtor pays the judgment.

Property Exempt from Collection

  • When a judgment debtor receives notice of a collection action, he or she can declare certain property “exempt” from collection.
  • This means the judgment debtor can protect some of his or her property from being taken to pay a judgment.
  • But, exemption is not an automatic process. The judgment debtor usually needs to file a notice with the court formally exercising these exemptions.
  • The judgment debtor must exercise and declare these exemptions very quickly in order to stop a collection action.  Court deadlines are very short and very strict.