What Happens if the Defendant Doesn't Pay a Small Claims Judgment?

Last Updated: August 21, 2023 by Ashley Porter

When a defendant doesn’t pay a small claims judgment, consequences vary from seizure of personal property to jail time. The judgment creditor must ensure the debt is collected before each state’s mandated deadline.

Consequences for Not Paying a Small Claims Judgment

If a judgment debtor refuses or otherwise fails to pay a small claims judgment, penalties include:

  • Seizure of personal property
  • Garnishment of assets and/or wages
  • Debt increases over time due to interest
  • Negative impact on credit report
  • Debt reported on background check
  • Jail time

How Can the Judgment Debtor be Forced to Pay?

In the best case scenario, the defendant pays their debt promptly after the judgment is issued. If they don’t, there are a variety of options available for collecting the debt.

    Garnish Wages

    If you know the judgment debtor’s employer, you can attempt to collect a judgment by garnishing their wages. In most states, those who depend on social security payments, retirement benefits, and earnings below the poverty level are exempt from garnishment.

    Typically, the process requires filing a request for garnishment with the court. If approved, the judge will issue an order to the judgment debtor’s employer requiring them to reserve a portion of the wages to pay the debt.

    Garnish Bank Funds

    If you know that the judgment debtor has enough funds in a bank account, you can collect a judgment by seeking a bank garnishment. In many courts, the process starts by filing a writ of garnishment form with the court clerk. If approved, the judge will issue an order to the judgment debtor’s bank requiring them to freeze a portion of the account to pay the debt.

    Seize Property

    You can request that the judgment debtor’s personal property is seized to pay the debt. Typically, the process requires filing a writ of execution with the local court, sheriff, or other law enforcement officer. If approved, the court-appointed officer will serve the judgment debtor and seize their property. Once seized, the property will be auctioned off to pay the debt.

    Impose a Real Estate Lien

    If you obtain a real estate lien, proceeds from the sale of the property will be used to pay the debt. The process to obtain a real estate lien varies by state. Typically, the process includes filing a request with the court clerk or recording the judgment with the county recorder where the property is located.

    How Long is a Small Claims Judgment Active?

    Judgments must be collected within a certain period of time after they are issued. If the judgment has not been collected during that time, it expires and is no longer active.

    The deadline is typically 5 to 10 years depending on the state. However, judgments gain annual interest so defendants are motivated to pay as quickly as possible.

    State Judgment Deadline Annual Interest
    Alabama 10 years 7.5%
    Alaska 5 years 7.5% (in 2023)
    Arizona 10 years 1% + Prime Rate or 10%
    (whichever is less)
    Arkansas 10 years 2% + Federal Reserve Primary Credit Rate
    California 10 years 10%
    Colorado 6 years 8%
    Connecticut 10 years Determined by Court
    Delaware 10 years 5% + Federal Reserve Discount Rate
    Florida 20 years Changes Quarterly
    Georgia 7 years 3% + Prime Rate
    Hawaii 10 years 10%
    Idaho 10 years 10.25% (until July 2024)
    Illinois 7 years 9%
    Indiana 20 years 8%
    Iowa 20 years 6.78% (in 2023)
    Kansas 5 years 12%
    Kentucky 15 years 6%
    Louisiana 10 years 6.5% (in 2023)
    Maine 10 years 10.73% (in 2023)
    Maryland 12 years 10% (6% on unpaid rent)
    Massachusetts 20 years 12%
    Michigan 6 years Changes Biannually
    Minnesota 10 years 5% (in 2023)
    Mississippi 7 years Determined by Court
    Missouri 10 years 9%
    Montana 10 years 3% + Bank Prime Rate
    Nebraska 5 years 6.9%
    Nevada 6 years Changes Biannually
    New Hampshire 20 years 5.8% (in 2023)
    New Jersey 20 years 0.25% (in 2023)
    New Mexico 14 years 8.75%
    (15% if the act was in bad faith)
    New York 20 years 9%
    North Carolina 10 years 8%
    North Dakota 20 years 10% (in 2023)
    Ohio 5 years 5% (in 2023)
    Oklahoma 5 years 9.5% (in 2023)
    Oregon 10 years 9%
    Pennsylvania 5 years 6%
    Rhode Island 20 years 12%
    South Carolina 10 years 11.5% (in 2023)
    South Dakota 10 years 10%
    Tennessee 10 years Determined by Court
    Texas 10 years 5 – 15%
    Utah 8 years 6.73% (in 2023)
    Vermont 8 years 12%
    Virginia 20 years 6%
    Washington 10 years Determined by Court
    Washington D.C. 12 years 6% (in 2023)
    West Virginia 10 years 7% (in 2023)
    Wisconsin 20 years 1% + Prime Rate
    Wyoming 5 years 10%