The final result in most civil lawsuits is the entry by the judge of a judgment in favor of one party and against another party. The judgment will require the losing party to pay damages, or monetary compensation, to the winning party. A judgment, however, is often just the beginning. Technically, state laws require the judgment debtor to pay the judgment immediately. However, as a practical matter, the judgment creditor generally must take additional legal steps to force the debtor to pay the judgment. The amount of time it takes to satisfy a civil judgment depends on the aggressive nature of the judgment creditor and on the assets and money available from the debtor.
A civil judgment is similar to a hunting tag. The judgment gives the winning lawsuit party the right to collect money, similar to a deer tag giving a hunter the right to hunt a deer. However, just as a hunter must then put in the effort to actually find a deer, so too must the judgment creditor put in the effort to find assets to satisfy the judgment. Despite what state laws require, the reality is that most debtors will not voluntarily pay civil judgments, but instead force the creditor to jump through the legal hoops necessary to satisfy the judgment.
Most state laws provide that a judgment begins to accrue interest from the date of entry by the judge. This means the debtor can experience some advantage in paying off the judgment immediately rather than waiting, since additional interest will accrue the longer the judgment remains unpaid. Additionally, judgment creditors generally have the right to recover their attorney's fees and costs spent in enforcing the judgment.
State laws allow the judgment creditor to force the debtor to appear in court after entry of the judgment, to inform the creditor regarding the debtor's assets and employment status. The judgment creditor has the right to ask questions like what property the debtor owns, what jobs or other forms of income the debtor has and what bank accounts the debtor has. The creditor can then use this information to decide how best to satisfy the judgment if the debtor will not pay voluntarily and immediately.
State laws provide a variety of means for a judgment creditor to satisfy a civil judgment. The most common forms of judgment satisfaction include property foreclosure and repossession, bank account seizure and wage garnishment. Property seizure occurs when the judgment creditor forces the sale of the debtor's property, such as the debtor's home or investment real estate. Similarly, a creditor can obtain an order from a judge allowing the creditor to withdraw funds from the debtor's bank account. Finally, the judgment creditor can obtain a garnishment order from the judge, which requires the debtor's employer to pay a portion of each one of the debtor's paychecks directly to the judgment creditor. The judgment creditor incurs additional costs when it takes any of these satisfaction actions, which means the amount due from the debtor goes up with each step.