A party against which an unsatisfied court decision is awarded; a person who is obligated to satisfy a court decision.
The term judgment debtor describes a party against which a court has made a monetary award. If a court renders a judgment involving money damages, the losing party must satisfy the amount of the award, which is called the judgment debt. Such a decision gives the winner of the suit, or JUDGMENT CREDITOR, the right to recover the debt, or award, through extraordinary means, and the court may help the creditor do so. State law governs how the debt may be recovered. Although the recovery process can be harsh, the law provides the debtor with certain rights and protection.
Following the verdict, other legal steps are usually taken against the judgment debtor. The court can order the debtor to appear for an oral hearing to assess the debtor's assets. If it is determined that the debtor has assets sufficient to satisfy the judgment debt, the court may order the debtor to surrender certain property to it. Commonly the judgment creditor must take additional legal action. This involves seeking the court's assistance in seizing the debtor's property, by the process known as attachment, or a portion of the debtor's salary, by the process called GARNISHMENT.
For centuries, attachment of property was allowed ex parte—without first allowing the defendant debtor to argue against it. However, contemporary law affords the debtor some protection. The debtor has the right to minimal DUE PROCESS. States generally require that the judgment creditor first secure a writ of attachment, that the debtor be given notice before seizure occurs, and that the debtor have the right to a prompt hearing afterward to challenge the seizure.
Other protections apply to both property and wages. First, not every kind of property is subject to attachment. States provide exemptions for certain household items, clothing, tools, and other essentials. Additional provisions may protect individuals in cases of extreme hardship. Where the creditor seeks garnishment in order to seize the judgment debtor's wages, laws generally exempt a certain amount of the salary that is necessary for personal or family support.
Courts can exercise their discretion to go beyond the statutory protections for judgment debtors. They can exempt more property from attachment than that specified in a statute. In some cases they can also deny the attachment or garnishment altogether. This can occur when the creditor seeks more in property than the value of the judgment debt, or where the property sought is an ongoing business that would be destroyed by an attachment.