Collecting on a Small Claims Court Judgment in Texas
The trial is the easy part. Getting your money can be the hard part, especially if you are dealing with an individual, like your ex-girlfriend. It is easier to collect from businesses, but there is no guarantee you'll ever collect. The court does not help you collect.
Under Texas law, an individual is entitled to have $30,000 worth of personal property exempt from being taken to pay a judgment debt. For a married person, the amount is $60,000. There is no garnishment of wages in Texas, except for court-appointed child support. A judgment lien can be placed against land, but the Homestead Act prevents you from forcing a sale of the land if it is a homestead.
The bottom line is that it can be very difficult to collect on a judgment from the average individual. Remember, the person property exemption of $30,000 covers cars, tools of a trade, furniture and various personal effects. Savings accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks and bonds, and goods in excess of $30,000 for a single person are not protected. Any excess in a checking account, over and above reasonable living expenses, can be reached as well. However, a specific legal process must be followed. It takes a lawyer to do this. For the collection of small debts, this is not practical.
Businesses and corporations are usually easier to collect from, especially if they own land. Since it is so hard to collect, why file in small claims court? Because the debtor may not know how hard it can be to collect from him or her, and therefore, he or she may pay once the judgment is granted. If he or she does not voluntarily pay, you can take the following steps:
- Writ of execution: You pay a hefty fee to the sheriff's office, and a deputy will go out and demand the money. If the person refuses to pay, the deputy can do nothing. This is a bluff on your part. Generally this is a waste of money because the debtor knows the officer can do nothing.
- Abstract of judgment: For a small fee, around $3, you can get a certified copy of the judgment from the justice of the peace court and file it with the county clerk for another small fee. This puts a lien against any land owned by the debtor in that county. If you know of land owned in another county, you can file the certified judgment there too. The lien will attach.
- Hire a lawyer: This is expensive and therefore not practical for small debts. For a fee, a lawyer will send post-judgment interrogatories. These are questions about what property the debtor owns and where it is. The interrogatories must be answered under oath, before a notary. Failure to do so can result in punishment by the court. The interrogatories are only worth the cost if the debtor really does own property that is not exempt from seizure. You may or may not know whether this is likely. Remember, you pay for the lawyer's services whether you recover any money on the judgment or not.