Quite often I receive frantic phone calls from consumers stating that a civil judgment has been entered against them and now they want to know what their options are. So what exactly does it mean when a civil judgment is entered against you?
I had the chance to discuss this topic on the New Urban Unlimited show with James Gore on 1150 am KKNW on July 16, 2016 which you can check out by clicking play on the MP3 player below.
Additionally to summarize our conversation, here are 10 critical things you need to know about civil judgments in the state of Washington.
1. A civil judgment determines who is victor in a case and what the award is
If a judgment has been entered in a civil lawsuit, it means that the court/jury has decided that one party to the case is the victor. Included in the judgment is the determination of which side prevailed, and how much money is owed from the judgment debtor to the judgment creditor. Also included are usually attorney fee’s, legal costs of filing the lawsuit and an interest rate that can accrue on the debt.
2. A civil judgment creditor can use local law enforcement to collect
After winning a judgment, the creditor can file a write of garnishment and garnish wages, bank accounts or put a lien on your property. Additionally the creditor can schedule a supplemental hearing where they can make you show up in court and testify about your assets and their locations. If you don’t show up for this hearing post judgment, a bench warrant can be issued for your arrest.
3. A civil judgment can grow after it’s entered
The costs, fees and sometimes the attorneys fees a creditor spends to collect a judgment get added to the judgment. Judgments accrue interest as well. In Washington, the statutory interest rate on judgments is 12%, even if no interest rate is listed. Often I see much higher interest rates included on default judgments up to 26% which can cause your debt load to grow rapidly.
4. civil Judgments appear on your credit report
Any judgment entered against can appear in the public records section of your credit report. This item can bring your credit score down significantly and once a judgment is entered against you it may remain on your credit for several years, even if you satisfy the debt. The credit report would just be updated to “satisfied” and not removed permanently. Most debt collectors don’t report the debt to the credit bureaus, but rather the information is gathered from third party data aggregators who get the information from the court system.
5. Ignore the summons and complaint and you lose
Unless you file a written answer with the court within 20 days of being served, a judgment can be entered against you without your side of the story. You should also send a copy of the answer to the attorney who sued you. All that due process requires is that you get good notice that you are being sued. Do nothing and the creditor wins. So what if you never got notice? See #6.
6. Default civil judgments may be set aside
Anybody who doesn’t respond to a summons and complaint is subject to a default judgment, which means the party suing wins be default. Default judgments can be set aside, however judges are usually reluctant to grant such motions, especially if you admit to owing the debt. Any motions to set aside a judgment must be filed with the judge who entered the original judgment. If you have other debts you are dealing with you time and money might be better served hiring a bankruptcy lawyer to dispose of your debts or at a minimum negotiate a settlement on your behalf.
7. Civil judgments can be appealed
A civil judgment isn’t final until the time period for an appeal has expired. Generally, you can appeal errors of law, but not the factual determinations that a trial court, or a jury, makes. You don’t get to introduce new evidence. This can also be costly as opposed to other alternatives such as bankruptcy.
8. Civil judgments entitle the creditor put a lien on your assets
A judgment lien is an interest in your property that follows the property wherever it is transferred. The lien is only released by payment or agreement with the judgment creditor. This can be an issue when you go to try and sell your home or obtain a loan modification if a lien shows up on a title search and it has not been satisfied.
9. Civil judgments are dischargeable in bankruptcy
Debts reduced to civil judgments can be eliminated in bankruptcy just as the debt that lies behind the judgment could. Bankruptcy looks at the nature of the debt behind the judgment to determine if you can escape it, not to the procedural status of the debt. Most judgments for debt collection are dischargeable in bankruptcy as well as for car accidents if the debt was incurred due to negligence.
10. Civil judgments can last a long time
Civil judgments have a life span provided by state law. In Washington, a judgment lasts for 10 years and can be renewed at the end of that period. Therefore once you have a judgment entered against you it can last a long time and incur a large amount of interest.
As you can see getting a civil judgment entered against you can have huge consequences and it should be avoided at all costs. If you live in Washington state and have additional questions about civil judgments, give Symmes Law Group a call at 206-682-7975 to learn about your options.