How are court judgments enforced?

A judgment is the official decision of a court of law in a lawsuit. A final judgment resolves the issues involved in the lawsuit, and determines the rights and obligations that each party in the lawsuit has. For example, in a civil case, a jury may find the defendant liable and award money to the plaintiff, or it may find the defendant not liable and award the plaintiff nothing. In a criminal case, the defendant may be acquitted or convicted. In any case, when a court issues a ruling (through either a judge or a jury), that ruling becomes legally enforceable and is enacted by the full power of the law.

The manner in which judgments are enforced varies depending on the type of case. In criminal law, a judgment is enforced by the government. The judgment in a criminal matter often results in the imposition of a jail sentence or other penalty, which government authorities will themselves enforce. Defendants can be ordered to pay a fine, put on probation, or sent to jail. In civil law, enforcement of the judgment is left to the parties of the lawsuit. When one party to a lawsuit does not comply with the judgment issued by the court, it is up to the other party to seek relief; that is, actually obtain the judgment as ruled by the court. 

Enforcement of a civil judgment arises when a money judgment or order for support is not paid. Although most people comply with a judgment issued by a court, some people simply ignore the judgment and do not pay. When a person does not pay, enforcement is required to make them give the plaintiff the money owed.

If a plaintiff who has been awarded money or support wishes to enforce that judgment, he will usually need to go back to court in order to do so if the other party (called the "judgment debtor") is not paying. The plaintiff may have several options for enforcement when he goes back to court, depending on the type of monetary damages or payments he has been awarded:

  • For most types of judgments, a plaintiff may be able to have the judgement debtor's wages garnished or he may be able to have a lien placed on the judgment debtor's property
  • For child support payments, additional enforcement methods may also exist. For example, in some states, a court may hold a party in contempt of court, take away his drivers license and/or impose additional penalties if that individual refuses to pay child support.

If you need help having a judgment enforced, you should speak with a lawyer for help.