How to Collect a Judgment in California

March 23, 2023


When someone owes you money and refuses to pay, obtaining a judgment against them is only half the battle. The critical next step is to collect the money the debtor owes, and in California, this process can be challenging and complex. In this article, we will explain some methods to collect a judgment in California, the importance of doing so, and provide valuable suggestions for navigating the process. This article is not legal advice but a general overview of the process.

To begin with, a judgment is a legal order issued by a court that requires one party (judgment debtor) to pay money to another party (judgment creditor). It is an essential legal tool to collect money owed and is necessary to enforce your legal rights.

Collecting a judgment is crucial because failing to do so renders the judgment effectively worthless, and you will not be able to recover the debt owed to you. Therefore, understanding the judgment collection process in California is vital if you want to recover your unpaid debts.

Understanding Judgments in California

When a judgment creditor is owed money, obtaining a judgment against the judgment debtor is the legal recourse to enforce their right to receive payment. In California, it is crucial to comprehend the nature of judgments to collect money owed successfully.

A court order issued after a lawsuit enables the creditor to collect the debt owed using legal remedies. A final judgment holds substantial power in enforcing the creditor's legal rights. Before receiving a judgment, a party can only ask that the debtor pay them. A judgment allows the creditor to make the debtor pay by legally seizing their assets using specific remedies available under the law.

In California, several types of judgments may be awarded, including money, possession, and injunction judgments.

  1. Money judgments: This is the most common type of judgment and requires the judgment debtor to pay a sum of money to the judgment creditor.
  2. Possession judgments: This type of judgment requires the judgment debtor to return property that belongs to the judgment creditor.
  3. Injunction judgments: This type of judgment requires the judgment debtor to stop doing something harmful to the judgment creditor.

To obtain a judgment in California, the creditor must file a lawsuit in court. The plaintiff must prove their case to the court, while the defendant has the opportunity to defend themselves.

If the plaintiff is successful, the court will issue a judgment in their favor. This court judgment will specify the amount owed, accrued interest, and other pertinent details. It is important to note that obtaining a judgment does not guarantee payment of the debt owed. The creditor must take additional steps to collect the debt owed to them. In the following sections, we will outline how to collect a judgment in California.

Large skyrise bank buildings.
Determining the assets of the debtor is a crucial step for proper judgment enforcement.

Filing the Judgment with the Court

When a judgment is obtained in California, the court will sign and enter the judgment on the register of actions (court docket). The following are some details on how filing the judgment with the court works:

Process of Filing a Notice of Entry of Judgment with the Court

Creditors must file a Notice of Entry of Judgment with the Court where the judgment was entered. They can complete a Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form CIV-130) and submit it to the clerk's office.

Requirements for Filing

Creditors must file the Notice of Entry of Judgment within 180 days from the original judgment's entry. The Notice of Entry of Judgment must be served to the Judgment Debtor(s) via mail or personal service. To avoid delays in the collection process, creditors must ensure that all information on the form is accurate and complete. A Proof of Service of the Notice of Entry of Judgment must be filed with the Court.

Timeline for Filing

Creditors should file and serve the Notice of Entry of Judgment as soon as possible after obtaining the original judgment. The debtor may attempt to hide or transfer assets to avoid paying the debt

A judgment lien is placed on the debtor's real property by obtaining an abstract of judgment from the court and recording this abstract with the county recorder, preventing the debtor from selling or transferring the property without first satisfying the judgment. Once the abstract of judgment is recorded, a judgment lien is created against the debtor’s equity interest in any real estate located in the county where the abstract has been recorded. A lien is only the beginning step, however. Creditors can begin the debt collection through wage garnishment, bank levies, and seizing personal property.

Wage Garnishment and Bank Levy

In California's judgment collection process, garnishing wages and bank levies are essential for judgment enforcement. This process of legal action allows the creditor to garnish wages from where the judgment debtor works or bank account to satisfy the money judgment.

Garnishing wages is a court order that requires the debtor's employer to withhold a certain percentage of the debtor's income and pay it to the Levying Officer, who in turn pays the garnished funds to the judgment creditor until the judgment debt is satisfied. The maximum amount that can be garnished from their wages in California is 25% of the debtor's disposable earnings, which is the number of earnings left after mandatory deductions such as taxes and Social Security.

A bank levy is another option for enforcing a judgment in California. This legal action allows the creditor to freeze the debtor's bank account and seize the funds to satisfy the judgment debt. The creditor must obtain a court order authorizing the bank levy, and then the order is served on the debtor's bank. The bank must then freeze the debtor's account and turn over the funds to satisfy the outstanding judgment.

To obtain a wage garnishment order or bank levy, the creditor must follow specific legal procedures. The creditor must file a Request for Wage Garnishment or a Writ of Execution with the court and then serve the appropriate documents on the debtor's employer or bank. The creditor must also provide the debtor with a Notice of Wage Garnishment or Notice of Levy.

It is important to note that wage garnishment and bank levy can have severe consequences for the debtor, including financial hardship when they realize their funds have been seized. In some cases, the debtor may be able to negotiate a payment plan with the creditor to avoid wage garnishment or bank levy.

Two men shaking hands in a legal setting.
Proper and timely filings are essential, regardless of if it is a small claims court or federal court.

Lien on Debtor's Property

When the judgment debtor fails to pay, one option to secure the judgment successfully is to obtain a lien on their property. A lien is a legal claim on a piece of property that is collateral for a debt owed. In California, creditors have various types of liens available, including judgment liens on real property, judgment debtor examination (Order to Appear for Examination), hearing liens, and UCC JL-1 liens.

How to Obtain a Lien on Debtor's Property

To obtain a lien on the judgment debtor's property, you must first obtain a court judgment against them. Once you have a judgment, you can record an abstract of judgment with the county recorder's office where the property is located. This creates a lien on the debtor's real property, such as land, buildings, or other structures they own.

For property, like a car, boat, or other motor vehicles, you can obtain a UCC JL-1 lien by filing a notice of judgment with the California Secretary of State. This creates a lien on the debtor's property, securing the debt against the property until the debt is paid.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Liens

The primary benefit of obtaining a lien is that it secures the debt owed to you. If the debtor fails to pay, you may be able to foreclose on the property and collect the debt from the sale proceeds. Additionally, liens can be renewed, giving you more time to collect the debt.

However, there are also drawbacks to liens. They can be expensive to obtain and may require legal assistance. Moreover, if the debtor has multiple liens on their property, you may have to compete with other creditors to collect the debt (i.e., you may be junior in lien priority to a senior lienholder). Finally, obtaining a lien may not be a viable option if the debtor does not own any property.

Writ of Execution

A writ of execution is a legal document that allows a creditor to collect a debt owed by a debtor. It authorizes a law enforcement officer to seize the debtor's property and sell it to pay off the debt. In California, obtaining a writ of execution follows a specific process.

To obtain a writ of execution, you must first obtain a court judgment against the debtor. Once you have a judgment, you can file a writ of execution with the court. The court will then issue the writ of execution, which authorizes a sheriff or other law enforcement officer to seize the debtor's property and sell it to pay off the debt.

After the writ of execution is issued, the sheriff will typically attempt to collect the debt by seizing and selling the debtor's property. The officer will typically start by seizing any bank accounts or other liquid assets the debtor may have.

If the debtor does not have enough liquid assets to satisfy the debt, the officer may seize and sell the debtor's personal property, such as a car or jewelry. If the debtor still owes money after their personal property has been sold, the officer may seize and sell the debtor's real property, such as a home or land.

There are limits on what property can be seized and sold to satisfy a debt. Some property, such as a debtor's primary residence, may be exempt from seizure under California law. The levying officer must also follow specific procedures when seizing and selling the debtor's property.

Several Michigan State Bar Journal volumes on a bookshelf.
Judgment collection agencies are often experts at collecting unpaid debts in quick fashion.

Judgment Collection Agencies

Judgment collection agencies specialize in recovering unpaid debts against uncooperative debtors. They are authorized and overseen by the state to carry out debt collection activities, which include locating debtors, arranging payment plans, and enforcing judgments.

Methods Used by Judgment Collection Agencies

Judgment collection agencies employ various tools and strategies to locate and collect judgment debts. They usually begin by assessing the details of the outstanding debt, such as the amount owed and any court judgments that have been granted.

With this information, they may use skip-tracing techniques to find the debtor by examining public records and social media profiles. They may also communicate with the debtor directly through phone calls, letters, or emails to negotiate regular payments or settlements.

If these negotiations are unsuccessful, the judgment collection agency may employ legal enforcement measures to recover the debt. This can involve wage garnishment, bank levies, and liens on the debtor's assets.

When to Consider Enlisting the Aid of a Judgment Collection Company

Creditors should consider using a judgment collection agency if other methods have failed to recover the outstanding debt. Judgment collection agencies have specialized knowledge and resources to locate debtors and recover unpaid debts, saving the creditor time and money.

However, picking a reputable judgment collection agency is critical to guarantee that all debt collection activities comply with state and federal laws.


Collecting a judgment in California can be complex and time-consuming, but it can ultimately result in the recovery of unpaid debts. By leveraging the different methods outlined in this guide, including obtaining a writ of execution, identifying assets, and using legal enforcement methods, creditors can increase their chances of successfully collecting on a judgment.

However, it is essential to recognize the challenges that may arise during the process, such as locating assets and dealing with uncooperative debtors. These challenges can be overcome by working with a judgment enforcement professional with specialized knowledge and resources to navigate the process effectively.

Collecting a judgment in California requires careful planning, persistence, and the willingness to seek professional assistance. By staying informed and taking proactive steps to collect unpaid debts, creditors can protect their financial interests and ensure justice is served.

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