Winning a civil court case usually results in a judgment being entered against the defendants. And because most civil judgments involve money, plaintiffs and defendants are often referred to as judgment creditors and judgment debtors, respectively. A legal relationship is established between them once a case is decided. It is a relationship that begins with the discovery process.
What is the discovery process? It is the process whereby the judgment creditor is given the legal right to ‘discover’ pertinent details about the judgment debtor’s employment, assets, bank accounts, etc. Discovery is utilized by the creditor’s attorneys to help the creditor understand what its options are for collection.
Judgment Collectors, a Salt Lake City collection agency that specializes in civil judgment collection in six states, says that the rules surrounding discovery are different from one state to the next. But as a general rule, they say that creditors have the following options:
1. The Interrogatory
Despite its legal-sounding name, the interrogatory is not complicated. It is generally a written questionnaire submitted to the debtor at the start of the discovery process. It asks for basic information regarding the debtor’s:
- legal address and contact info
- current employment
- salary (weekly, monthly, or annually)
- bank accounts and investments
- tangible assets (other than primary residence, car, etc.).
In a perfect world, every judgment debtor would complete the interrogatory honestly and in a timely manner. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. It is not unusual for creditors to get the runaround.
2. A Deposition
There are cases in which a civil court will agree to a deposition. A deposition is a legal proceeding during which the creditor’s attorneys question the debtor under oath. This is known as deposing the debtor. By doing so under oath, attorneys force a debtor to answer questions honestly or face contempt charges.
3. Document Requests
In cases of both interrogatories and depositions, creditor attorneys often file requests for production of documents. This is a legal request that obligates a debtor to produce documents relating to financial circumstances and assets. Attorneys can ask for everything from bank statements to mortgage records and proof that an asset was sold prior to the start of litigation.
It should be noted that such requests are time sensitive. In other words, debtors only have so much time to produce the requested documents before the creditor’s attorneys can take further action.
4. A Debtor’s Examination
As you can probably tell, things escalate with every step taken by the creditor’s attorney. If the first three discovery methods fail to yield the desired results, a creditor can request a debtor’s examination. This is similar to a deposition with one exception: a debtor’s examination takes place before the court.
A deposition can occur anywhere. It only requires that both attorneys and the debtor be present. But a debtor’s examination takes place in front of a judge. This is important because debtors take an oath to tell the truth in court. If they are caught lying, they can be charged with perjury.
5. The Bench Warrant
If all else fails, a creditor can ask the court to file a bench warrant against the debtor. A bench warrant creates the legal authority to find, arrest, and compel the debtor to appear in court for a debtor’s examination. It is a means of last resort for discovery, but it’s generally effective when utilized.
Discovery after a civil judgment is all about learning of the debtor’s financial situation. It is a process designed to give creditors a clear picture of their enforcement options. Unfortunately, it’s not always straightforward and easy. Sometimes discovery is an uncomfortable and messy proposition.