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Judgments: How Long Do They Last and Will Bankruptcy Help?

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In a Nutshell

When a creditor wins a lawsuit against you, the court issues them a judgment. This allows them to take serious collection actions like wage garnishment. The length of time the judgment is enforceable varies depending on the state you live in. In some states, it’s as short as five years, and in other states, it’s as long as 20 years. Judgments can also often be renewed. If you can’t afford to pay a judgment against you, filing bankruptcy can help eliminate the judgment.

Written by Attorney Jenni Klock Morel
Updated July 10, 2023

If you fall behind on your credit card bills or loan payments, the creditor or lender can sue you for the unpaid debt. If the creditor wins the lawsuit, they’ll get a court judgment. This allows them to take more extreme debt collection actions. The calls and letters demanding payment might slow down. But a creditor or debt collector with a court judgment can now garnish your wages and bank account. They can also put a lien on your property. 

If a creditor gets a judgment against you, it could remain in effect for up to 20 years. In many cases, it can also be renewed. The exact time frame depends on which state you live in and the type of judgment. You can get rid of a judgment by paying the money you owe or filing for bankruptcy protection. Read on to learn more.

What Happens When a Creditor Gets a Judgment?

A judgment is a court order that states the court’s decision for a lawsuit. If a creditor gets a judgment against you, there can be serious consequences. Simply not showing up to court when you’re sued doesn’t mean a creditor can’t get a judgment against you. In fact, they’re likely to get a default judgment.

Once a creditor has a civil judgment for unpaid debts, they’re called a judgment creditor. The debtor is called a judgment debtor. If you become a judgment debtor, the judgment creditor will ask the court to issue a writ of execution. This gives the creditor permission to take certain debt collection actions against you. With a writ of execution in hand, a judgment creditor can pursue a wage garnishment or bank account levy or get a lien against your property. More on each of these later.

How Long Judgments Last

State law dictates how long a money judgment lasts. In many states, judgments only last for 5-10 years. But in some states, like New York, judgments remain enforceable for 20 years. In some states, different kinds of judgments have different time limits. Judgments against personal property may have a different time frame than a judgment lien against real property. 

Also, many states allow judgment creditors to renew judgments. For example, judgment creditors in Idaho have five years to collect on a judgment. After five years, they can renew a judgment for an additional five years. Some states only allow judgment creditors to renew judgments once, while other states allow them to renew judgments indefinitely. To find out how long a judgment lasts in your state, you can contact your state court, a local legal aid office, or your state’s attorney general.

With all judgments, after the enforcement period passes, you’ll no longer owe the remaining balance. If the judgment creditor doesn’t renew the judgment when it first expires, then the judgment goes away at that time. In some states, the judgment can be revived years later with a simple application for a judgment renewal.

How Long Judgments Stay on Your Credit Report

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, judgments and liens can stay on your credit report for seven years or until the statute of limitations lapses, whichever is longer. But starting in July 2017, the three major credit bureaus agreed to remove and stop reporting civil judgments on consumer credit reports.

But it’s still important to remember that judgments arise from unpaid debt. When you miss or fall behind on debt payments, you’ll seriously harm your credit score. If the original creditor or lender charged off your debt or sold it to a debt collection agency, that negative item can remain on your report for seven years. Essentially, when it comes to credit reporting, the judgment itself may not hurt you but all that comes before it will.

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How Creditors Collect on Judgments

As long as a judgment is valid and collectible, the judgment creditor can pursue serious collection measures. This includes garnishing your wages, levying your bank account, and putting a lien against your property.

Wage garnishment allows a judgment creditor to take money directly from your paycheck. Federal law limits how much of your disposable income can be garnished. Typically, creditors can garnish up to 25% of your weekly disposable earnings or the amount that your weekly disposable earnings exceed 30 times the federal minimum wage. Certain types of income can’t be garnished, including Social Security income.

A bank levy is similar to wage garnishment, but instead of taking funds from your paycheck, a creditor takes money directly from your bank account. Once a creditor gets a court order allowing them to levy your bank account, the bank will freeze your account so you can’t access it. Then the bank will send funds to your judgment creditor. Creditors can levy your bank account as many times as necessary to satisfy the judgment. To satisfy a judgment means to pay it off. As with a wage garnishment, certain types of income are safe from levy. For example, creditors can’t levy Social Security income or child support payments. 

If you own property and a creditor gets a court judgment against you, they can place a lien on your real estate and/or personal property. This is known as a judgment lien. A judgment lien is recorded with the county recorder, just like a mortgage or any other property lien. If a debtor’s property has a judgment lien against it, they usually have to pay the lien before they can sell or transfer the property. In some cases, they can pay off the lien using the proceeds from the sale.

This debt collection approach is costly for debt collectors, so they often prefer to garnish your wages or bank account instead.

How To Get Rid of a Judgment

You can deal with a judgment in a few ways.

  • Pay the judgment: Many judgment debtors can’t afford to pay the judgment in full. But you can try to negotiate a payment plan with the judgment creditor. If you don’t negotiate a payment plan, the judgment creditor can get an order to garnish your wages. Once the judgment is satisfied — paid in full — it goes away.

  • Wait it out: You can try to wait for the judgment collection period to lapse. But recall that most judgments last for a minimum of five years and some can last for a 20-year period or more if they’re renewed. While you may be tempted to wait it out and not pay on the judgment, you’ll put yourself at risk of the serious collection measures described above unless you’re judgment proof.

  • File bankruptcy: Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy can be an effective way to eliminate judgments for unpaid credit card debt, medical bills, or other unsecured debt.

Filing Bankruptcy To Get Rid of Judgments

Bankruptcy erases certain types of debts, including judgments for credit card debt, medical bills, and other unsecured debt. While the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process can take up to six months, there are some immediate advantages to filing if you’re facing a judgment you can’t afford to pay on top of other debt.

For example, filing for bankruptcy puts an immediate stop to debt collection lawsuits, wage garnishments, and bank levies. If your Chapter 7 bankruptcy is successful, your unsecured debts will be discharged. That said, if a creditor has a lien against your property, that won’t be discharged in Chapter 7 because it’s a secured debt.

Let’s Summarize…

If you don’t pay a debt you owe, a creditor or debt collector can sue you and win a court judgment. Judgment creditors can then use serious debt collection methods, including garnishing your wages, levying a bank account, or placing a lien on your property. Each state establishes its own time period for judgments. In some states, this time period is as little as five years. In other states, it’s as long as 20 years. Also, many states allow judgment creditors to renew judgments to extend the time to collect on the judgment.

If you can’t afford to pay a judgment against you and you also have a lot of other debt, Chapter 7 bankruptcy can be an effective way to wipe out the debt and judgments tied to unsecured debt. If you want to file Chapter 7 and your case is simple, you can use Upsolve’s filing tool to file your case for free without a lawyer. If you aren’t sure how to tackle your judgment and other debt, you can schedule a free consultation with a local bankruptcy attorney who can give you legal advice.

Written By:

Attorney Jenni Klock Morel


Jenni Klock Morel is a writer, nonprofit leader, and Social Justice Law Scholar. For years she practiced consumer bankruptcy law exclusively as a debtor's attorney, helping individuals and families file for Chapter 7 or 13 bankruptcy protection. Jenni left the practice of law to... read more about Attorney Jenni Klock Morel

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