The legal system provides remedies if another party damages you through fraud, misrepresentation or simple negligence. Small-claims courts, for example, are designed to settle disputes, most often with an award or denial of monetary damages to the individual or business who brings the claim. If you win a civil claim, and the court's decision includes a money judgment against your defendant, the court will notify the defendant of the deadline to pay. If no payment is forthcoming, then the difficult part -- collecting the funds you're now owed -- has just begun.
The goal in most civil claims is a court-issued, enforceable judgment, which accumulates interest until it is paid by a defendant. The winning plaintiff has the right to collect on the judgment through a procedure sanctioned by state law. Each state sets out the rules on these legal collections, which may include levies, liens and wage garnishments. Most states set a statute of limitations on judgments, meaning they eventually expire and become unenforceable unless the judgment holder renews them. In addition, if the defendant moves, a judgment can be transferred to or filed in another state and will be enforced according to that state's laws.
Garnishment begins when a party holding a money judgment petitions a court for a writ of garnishment. The court or the defendant sends the writ to the defendant's employer, who is required by law to withhold funds from the defendant's paycheck. The employer sends the money to the court, which records the amount and then passes the funds on to the plaintiff. The amount of the garnishment is restricted by state and federal law; a plaintiff can't take an entire paycheck. In addition, certain funds, such as Supplemental Security Income benefits, can't be garnished. Some states only allow a single garnishment, and some protect a percentage of the defendant's pay if he's disabled or has minor dependents.
Plaintiffs also have the right to pursue a bank levy. The court-issued writ is filed with law enforcement, usually the local sheriff's office, which serves the writ on the bank. Some states allow service by mail. The bank freezes the defendant's bank account and diverts the demanded sum to the plaintiff through proper legal channels. There are certain restrictions on levies: For example, an account holding only Social Security benefits or a retirement pension may be exempt as long as no other funds are mingled with the exempt money. In addition, any plaintiff intending to collect on a judgment should be aware of the possibility of a bankruptcy filing, which protects the defendant from collection actions, including those sanctioned by a judgment.
A plaintiff may also file a lien on the defendant's property. This is a notice to the county or state recorder's office of the outstanding judgment. The recorder files the lien, which must be paid before the defendant can receive any proceeds from the sale of the property -- often a house. Plaintiffs may also have the right to seize property, such as a car, but state laws mandate that the vehicle's owner should get advance notice of the seizure and information about how the plaintiff can sell or auction the vehicle.