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What Personal Property Can be Seized After a Judgment?

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In a Nutshell

Judgment creditors are empowered to seize the personal property of judgment debtors if their property doesn't fall within an exemption. Generally, creditors will not take your personal property because the cost and time of locating the property is usually not worth it to them.

Written by Attorney Andrea Wimmer.  
Updated November 24, 2021

After not getting paid for a while, creditors will eventually file a lawsuit to try and collect the balance owed. If the creditor wins in the lawsuit (or you ignore it) they’ll get a judgment. The judgment is a court order that gives the creditor the right to take (or “seize”) certain property from you to satisfy the judgment. If you’re wondering what kinds of personal property may be at risk, this article is for you.

What Is a Judgment Creditor?

A judgment creditor is someone you owe money to that sued you for nonpayment and won a judgment against you. At that point, you become the “judgment debtor.”

A debt collection lawsuit starts when you’re served with the summons and complaint. The summons tells you how long you have to respond, while the complaint outlines the reason for the lawsuit. 

The law of the state where you live (and where the lawsuit is filed) determines how much time you have to answer. It’s important not to lose track of that, as missing the answer deadline could result in a default judgment against you.

Once the creditor has a judgment, they’ll have additional ways of getting you to pay them. The judgment is a court order that allows them to move forward with wage garnishments, bank account levies, judgment liens on real property, and—yes—even the seizure of personal property. How long the judgment remains valid and enforceable depends on state law. 

What Types of Property Can be Seized by a Judgment Creditor?

Even though the judgment constitutes a court order, the creditor is still subject to state laws when it comes to enforcing the judgment. That means only property that is not protected by an exemption can be seized by a judgment creditor. 

Exemptions limit the amount of money that a judgment creditor can take under a wage garnishment which is hugely important, especially for minimum wage workers. The homestead exemption protects real property use as a home from a forced sale by a judgment creditor. 

With respect to personal property, most states have specific exemptions for specific types of property. Most protect your typical household goods, health aids, clothing, and a motor vehicle up to a certain value. Federal law protects social security and disability benefits from debt collectors (with or without a judgment). 

Process for Seizing Non-Exempt Personal Property

To seize a judgment debtor’s personal property, a court-appointed officer or sheriff serves them with a writ of execution. Once that’s done, the sheriff or officer will peacefully remove the property. The exact procedure, including what goes into a writ of execution, is determined by state law. 

Once seized, the property is sold to the highest bidder at an auction. The sale proceeds from the auction are then used to first pay for the cost of taking the property and holding the auction sale, then to pay down the amount owed on the money judgment. 

Every step of the process costs the creditor money, so it’s rare to see one pursue a judgment debtor’s personal property. If you don’t have valuable assets and you’re still paying on a car loan, odds are a judgment creditor will not try to pursue this. Instead, they’ll typically do a wage garnishment or bank account levy instead.

What Is Considered Personal Property?

Real property refers to houses, land, and other types of real estate. Personal property is everything else—as long as you can touch it. Examples of personal property include household goods, furniture, cars, health aids, clothing, etc. 

Examples of assets that don’t fall into either category are your life insurance, retirement plan, and IRA. 

What Does It Mean To Be Judgment Proof?

If your income can’t be garnished and you don’t own valuable property that isn’t protected by an exemption, you’re considered judgment proof. While you can get sued, not even a judgment creditor can seize exempt property from you. 

Keep in mind, being judgment-proof is not always a permanent thing. If you’re out of work when the money judgment is made and find a job later, your wages can still be garnished. 

What Kind of Income Can’t Be Garnished? 

Social Security benefits, disability benefits, and child support payments generally can’t be garnished. Some states also protect retirement benefits and public assistance from judgment creditors. 

Let’s Summarize…

Although it rarely happens, judgment creditors can seize a debtor’s personal property to satisfy all or part of a money judgment. Exemptions set by state law protect certain personal property, a portion of your wages, and—in most states—an interest in a real property you’re using as a homestead. 

If you’ve fallen on hard times—whether due to COVID-19 or something else—getting sued can add insult to injury, but it’s important to keep on top of the lawsuit. Know that you’re not alone and that you have options

Written By:

Attorney Andrea Wimmer


Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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