How to Respond to a Default Judgment

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Responding to a default judgment requires quick action. Default judgments are the result of a civil lawsuit, often for an unpaid debt. They occur when one party either fails to show for the hearing or, in some states, does not provide a written response to the lawsuit, known as an answer. By law, the judge in the case must award a monetary judgment to the plaintiff if the defendant fails to show for the court hearing.

Gather as much information as you can about the default judgment, including the date it was entered in court. Read legal notices sent to your house to find the date of the judgment or call the county courthouse to ask if public court records are available online. Get the Web address if online records are available and visit the site. Click on the appropriate menu tabs to enter the public records database. Enter your name in the database to search for the judgment.

Call the local office of your state's attorney. Call the public library to ask for the telephone number, if necessary. Ask the state's attorney's office about the laws in your state for responding to default judgments. Laws differ by state, but there is usually a grace period for responding to default judgments before they become permanent. For example, in Los Angeles County, California, people with default judgments have up to 180 days to file for a reversal of the default judgment, depending on the circumstances.

Hire an attorney to represent you, if possible. If you cannot afford an attorney visit the county courthouse and ask a clerk for a "Motion To Vacate" form. Fill out the form entirely. The forms may vary by the state but generally they require you to provide a valid reason for not appearing in court or responding to the lawsuit. Follow instructions offered by the clerk to officially file the motion.

Check your mail daily for an official response to your motion. A judge will either grant the motion and schedule a new hearing, or deny the motion, allowing the judgment to stand.

Research the debt to determine the statute of limitations on the debt while you wait for a response on the motion. Obtain a copy of your credit report from Annual Credit Report online. It's the only Web site authorized to offer free credit reports under the terms of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Review the report to determine the last date of activity on the account. Compare that date with your state's statute of limitation laws limiting how long debt collectors can use lawsuits to collect a debt. The local office of the state's attorney can tell you about the statute of limitation on your debt. State statutes of limitation vary, but the average is about six years.

Cite the state statute of limitation as a defense if a new hearing is set for your case and the debt is no longer eligible for consideration by the courts. If the motion is denied contact the debt collector to negotiate a settlement.

Tips & Warnings

  • Visit with an attorney even if you think you can't afford legal services. Initial consultations are often free, and the attorney may offer a reasonable fee for representation.
  • Failure to respond to a default judgment could lead to garnishment of your bank account or wages. Also, winning a motion to vacate the judgment is only a temporary victory. It is likely that a new hearing will result in another victory for the debt collector if you legally owe the money.

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