What happens if you can't pay

If you can’t pay what the court says you owe or can’t pay all the money right away, a few things will happen. The money you owe may increase. It can go on your credit report. But, you have some options.

If you don't pay, what you owe can increase

  • As long as the money is unpaid, it gathers interest at 5% or 10% per year (for example, if 10% interest, $1,000 owed becomes $1,100 after a year, $2,000 at 10 years). The sooner it is paid, the less interest you will have to pay.
  • Any money the other side spends trying to collect the money can be added to what you owe.

The judgment will probably show up on your credit report. 

This will hurt you if you’re trying to buy something on credit or even rent a place to live.

Options if you can't pay

This is a good place to start because you can come up with a plan that works for both of you.

  • If there are local agencies that help people mediate, they may be able to help you come to agreement.
  • If you work something out, make sure everything you agreed about is in writing. Include:
    • When the payments are due
    • How often you’ll pay (weekly, monthly, every 3 months?)
    • If, how much, and when interest will be added
    • Where you should send the payments
    • What kind of payment is OK (check or online payment, for example)
    • Who you should make the payments to

Keep detailed records and proof of all your payments, especially if you pay with cash.

At any point, even years later, you can ask a judge to let you make payments.

Ask to make payments

The other side may get another court date to ask about what you own and where you work

The other side may have a judge order you to come to answer questions about your property, work, and any bank accounts you have (called a Debtor's Examination). They can also add to what you owe any fees or costs associated with getting the court date.

Learn about debtor's examinations

The other side may try to collect money from you

The other side may ask the court to order that the money you owe comes out of your paycheck (called wage garnishment) or bank accounts (a bank levy). These are the most common ways they may try to collect.

  • Put a lien on any property you own. A lien makes it so you usually have to pay what you owe before you can sell or refinance your property.
  • Have the sheriff take money from the register of any business you own 
  • Put a hold on your driver’s license
  • Put a hold on your professional license
  • Get a court order to have things you own sold to pay them
  • Get an order that the Sheriff can come to your business and take money from customers as they pay you

There are more ways. Get legal help to understand your rights.

There are ways to stop or limit the amount that's taken if you have little money or income

If they do try to collect from your paycheck or bank account, you may be able to stop or limit the amounts taken. The next sections have information about your options if the other side does try to garnish your wages or take money from your bank account.

Get legal help to decide if this choice might help you. 

If you do pay, the other side needs to let the court know

The person you owe money to must file an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (form SC-290 or EJ-100) within 14 days of being paid. This is like a receipt of payment and lets the court know you paid the debt. 

1. Send the other side a letter by certified mail with return receipt requested. In the letter, ask them to file an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment right away. Let them know if they don't file it within 14 days of being paid, you can sue them for $50 plus any damage this caused.
2. If they still won't file one, ask the court to enter one. You can file a written statement (a declaration) with the court stating that you paid. Attach any proof that you paid. Your court may have a form you can use for this. Check with a small claims clerk or your Small Claims Advisor.

Make sure any liens are cleared and update your credit report. Get certified copies of the Acknowledgment and send them to the credit reporting agencies and any place the creditor recorded a lien (if they did it would be listed in Form EJ-100).

Small claims collection

What's next?

If money is being taken from your bank account or your paycheck, there may be things you can do to stop or limit what's taken.

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