Most debt collection actions involving a legal judgment follow a predictable pattern: The creditor tries to collect, the debtor fails to pay, the court grants a judgment, then the creditor takes steps including wage garnishment and bank levies to collect on the court-sanctioned debt. Sometimes, however, the creditor may suspect the debtor is hiding assets -- at which point, the creditor may request a subpoena to force the debtor to reveal his full portfolio of assets and liabilities under the court's authority.
A subpoena compels the person named to appear before a court and testify under oath about a particular subject. Failure to comply with a subpoena may result in the judge issuing a contempt of court citation -- and a contempt charge may be enforced by an arrest warrant. Subpoenas related to debt collection are so common that some states, like Michigan, incorporate debt-collection language into the stock subpoena form issued by the State Court Administrative Office.
A subpoena, as part of the judicial process, only follows from a civil or criminal complaint. A creditor cannot request a subpoena until after filing a debt-collection lawsuit. If a creditor threatens to issue a subpoena without first having taken the matter to court, the creditor could be liable for a violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which forbids collectors from misrepresenting their intention about proceeding with a lawsuit.
A subpoena issued to a judgment debtor will typically require the debtor to appear before a judge and swear under oath that the material the debtor provides is complete and truthful. The subpoena usually requires the debtor to list all assets and liabilities; the court enters this disclosure into its record and it becomes accessible to the creditor. The debtor must disclose his ownership interest in houses, properties, boats, cars and other significant investments, as well as outlining all active banking and investment accounts. The creditor will use this information to request the seizure of assets to satisfy the outstanding debt judgment.
Aggressive creditors use subpoenas when they do not believe they have any other recourse to collect on the debt judgment. One of the first tactics is wage garnishment -- but if creditors already garnish a person to the maximum extent allowable under state law, then the creditor may pursue bank levies and asset seizure instead. The subpoena helps the creditor determine the debtor's total range of assets. To get to this point in the collections process, the debtor usually remained non-responsive to the creditor even after going through the judicial process.