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How Do You Cancel (Vacate) a Court Judgment?

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In a Nutshell

If a judge has issued a default judgment against you, you may be able to have it vacated (canceled) by filing a formal request with the court. This request is called a motion. To successfully have a default judgment vacated, you’ll need to have a good reason for not participating in the lawsuit that led to the default judgment. You should also have your defenses for the original lawsuit prepared. If the court approves the motion, it will review the original debt collection case.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated November 11, 2023

A judgment is a court order. This article focuses on how to vacate a default judgment in a debt collection lawsuit. These types of cases are often heard in a small claims court or a county, district, or superior court. The process varies from state to state, so you’ll need to identify which court your lawsuit was filed in. You can find this information in any of the court papers you’ve received, including the summons or the Notice of Entry of Judgment.

I Got Notice of a Default Judgment Against Me. Now What?

If you get sued by a debt collector and don’t respond to the court summons you received, the judge will likely rule in the plaintiff’s favor by issuing a default judgment against you. The plaintiff is the person who sued you. The same is true if you do respond to the court summons but don’t show up for your hearing or other scheduled court appearances.

You should receive a document called a Notice of Entry of Judgment from the court notifying you of the judgment. Getting notice can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. In many cases, you’ll have some time to address the default judgment. This is often done by filing a motion with the court to vacate the judgment. 

A motion is a legal document used to make a formal request to the court. In legal terms, to vacate means to cancel. You may see different language in your local court that means something similar. For example, it may be called a motion to set aside a judgment, a motion to reopen a judgment, or a notice of motion to vacate judgment.

You may be able to find a sample motion on your local court’s website or resources from a local legal aid organization.

What Does It Mean To Vacate a Judgment?

If a judge agrees to vacate a judgment, they essentially cancel or revoke it. In most cases, this puts you back to square one with the lawsuit. It doesn’t make the lawsuit disappear or mean that you win instead. But it does mean that you can now present your side of the case.

What Does It Mean To Have Good Cause?

In order to get the motion to vacate approved, you’ll need to have and be able to show “good cause.” Many courts define and provide examples of good cause, which include things like excusable neglect, inadvertence, and misrepresentation. 

If you were deceived about the court case in some way by the plaintiff, this may be considered misrepresentation. If you didn’t respond to the court case because you were ill or in the hospital, this could be considered excusable neglect. Again, it’s up the court to decide if your reason for not responding meets the standard of good cause.

Another example of good cause is not being notified of the lawsuit. If the other party claims they notified you but you never received anything, you can access court records for your case (often online for free) to see if there is an affidavit of service. This should indicate when and how they served (delivered) the court papers to you. If it’s incorrect, explain why in the motion to vacate.

In some states, you may also need to show that you have a valid defense against the claims brought against you to get your motion to vacate approved. No matter where you live, if the motion is approved, the judge will review your defense to the claims listed in the lawsuit, so you should have these prepared.

Should You Ever Not File a Motion To Vacate?

You shouldn’t file a motion to vacate a judgment unless you can show good cause and provide any other information or evidence required by your local court. If you don’t have a solid defense against the lawsuit or don’t dispute the plaintiff’s claims, filing a motion to vacate probably won’t be helpful. In fact, it may be harmful. If the judge in the case feels like you don’t have good standing to file the motion, they may deem it “frivolous” and require you to pay the other party’s legal fees related to the motion.

If you aren’t sure if you should file a motion to vacate, you may be able to get a free consultation with an attorney to get some input on your case. You can also see if there’s a local legal aid agency that can provide free help or point you to other community resources for legal help. You can also look for information on your local court’s website. Many have a search box, which can be a helpful way to find things. Search for phrases like “motion to vacate” and “good cause.”

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How Do You Vacate a Court Judgment Against You?

If you’ve interacted much with the legal system, you’ve probably learned that there tends to be a lot of paperwork involved. Filing a motion to vacate is no different. 

This article explains the general process for filing this motion, but each court across the country has its own forms and procedures, so you should check with your local court to ensure you’re doing everything correctly. Luckily, every court has a clerk of court whose job it is to help people like you find court forms and understand the court rules and processes.

Here are a few questions to consider as you prepare your paperwork:

  • What form(s) do I need to file a motion to vacate?

  • Do any of these forms need to be signed by the judge, commissioner, or a notary public?

  • What forms do I have to file with the clerk’s office?

  • What forms do I need to deliver (serve) to the debt collector or person who sued me?

  • How many copies of each form will I need?

  • Is there a filing fee?

What Happens After You File Your Motion With the Court?

After you file your motion with the court, you must serve a copy of the motion on the opposing party. They then usually get a chance to respond. At this point, the judge in the case may decide to schedule a hearing on the motion, or they may decide to grant or deny the motion without a hearing. 

If the court schedules a hearing, you may be required to confirm the hearing date with the court. Be sure to do this if it’s required. The paperwork notifying you of the hearing will include information about when and where the hearing will be held (some may be held remotely) and whether or not you need to confirm the date.

When you attend the hearing, bring all your legal documents with you, including anything that supports your defense(s) in the case. If the judge grants the motion to vacate, they’ll schedule a new court date to hear your case. In some courts, the new trial could happen right after the hearing on the motion, so be prepared!

How Long Do You Have To File a Motion to Vacate Judgment?

The time limit to file a motion to vacate varies by state and courthouse. In some cases, it will also vary based on the reason you’re filing the motion to vacate. Most will ask you to file within a “reasonable time,” but some states interpret that to be a matter of days or weeks, while others consider it a matter of months.

The best way to find out how long you have to file a motion to vacate a default judgment is to contact the court clerk of the courthouse where your case was filed.

Let’s Summarize…

If you didn’t respond to a debt collection lawsuit or failed to show up to a hearing, the judge in the case likely ruled against you and issued a default judgment. In most courts, you can file a motion to have the default judgment vacated or canceled. The process for doing this differs court by court, but the clerk in the courthouse where the lawsuit was filed can help you understand what form you need to file and how the process works. A motion to vacate is unlikely to succeed unless you had a good reason for not replying to the lawsuit or showing up to a scheduled hearing.

Written By:

Jonathan Petts


Jonathan Petts has over 10 years of experience in bankruptcy and is co-founder and CEO of Upsolve. Attorney Petts has an LLM in Bankruptcy from St. John's University, clerked for two federal bankruptcy judges, and worked at two top New York City law firms specializing in bankrupt... read more about Jonathan Petts

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