Credit Infocenter

Is a Judgment Always a Lien?

May 21st, 2013 · No Comments · I'm being sued!

by Kristy Welsh

(Last Updated On: May 20, 2013)

Q. I found a judgment against me on my county’s court site – does that mean there is a lien on my house? If not, how can you tell the difference?

A. No, a judgment does not automatically place a lien on your home. Definitely not! As a matter of fact, the typical way a creditor will try to recover a judgment is through garnishment or seizing of bank accounts. Both require court orders in addition to the court order establishing the original judgment.

In garnishments, a creditor will apply to the court to get an order authorizing garnishment. They will take this writ and go to your employer and ask them for a portion of your paycheck. However, there are very strict laws on garnishment which vary widely by state. A creditor cannot take your whole check nor even most of it. In some states (Texas is an example), garnishments are illegal all together. For a complete list state by state, refer to our garnishment article.

Should garnishment not be an option in your situation, the judgment holder will apply to the courts to authorize the seizure of other assets, most commonly bank accounts. There are limitations on what types of funds a creditor can seize as well. For instance, social security income and retirement benefits are generally exempt from seizure. If you can prove all the money in your checking account comes from your social security checks, a creditor cannot touch that account, even with a court order.

In addition, many states have homestead exemptions which will protect the value of your home against a forced sale by creditors in the case of judgments, bankruptcies or death of spouse. Each state has a different exemption. The amounts range from as low as $5000 (Alabama) to no limits at all (Florida). In most states, this exemptions are not automatic. Homeowners must file an application for homestead exemption with the appropriate government office.

If you are not sure if there is a lien against your property, you can search for the lien in your county courthouse. A legal lian will be recorded as a matter of public record. If you are unsure how to do a search, you can ask a title company to do one for you (but it’s not free).

Another option you might consider is to get the judgment vacated. Vacating a judgment is basically sending the judgment back to court for an appeal. If you did not know about the judgment, there is a good chance you were served (notified of an impending suit) improperly. Improper serving of a judgment is the best and strongest reason that a judgment can be overturned. For more information about vacating a judgment, read our article on this process.

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