Can You File Bankruptcy on a Judgment?

Not only can you file a bankruptcy case if you have a judgment, the filing might help you eliminate that judgment.

By , Attorney (Tulane University School of Law)

If a creditor has a court judgment against you, you can often discharge (wipe out) the debt in bankruptcy. But a judgment can create a lien that gives the creditor the right to seize and sell your property to pay the debt. While you might be able to get the debt to go away, it isn't always possible to get rid of a lien in bankruptcy, making it difficult for you to sell or refinance property later. Learn about when bankruptcy can do the following:

  • stop creditor collection actions
  • erase judgment debt, and
  • eliminate liens.

If you haven't filed yet, take a moment to learn how bankruptcy works and what you should know about bankruptcy. And check out our quick ten-question bankruptcy quiz—it can spot potential bankruptcy issues fast.

How Bankruptcy Stops Creditor Collection Actions

Most people end up with a money judgment after a creditor files a lawsuit for an unpaid debt. If you fail to file an answer or you lose the case, the court will enter a judgment for the amount of the debt, plus other amounts, such as the attorneys' fees and costs for bringing the suit.

Depending on the laws of your state, a creditor with a judgment against you might be able to

  • garnish your wages without your permission
  • garnish your bank account without your permission
  • seize and sell your personal property, and
  • place a lien against, seize and sell your real property

When you file for bankruptcy, you get the benefit of the automatic stay—an order that will stop such collection attempts as soon as you file your case.

After finishing your Chapter 7 bankruptcy or Chapter 13 matter, the court will wipe out the judgment creditor's right to collect on the debt if it qualifies for discharge (more below). But you won't be out of the clear if the money judgment provides the creditor with lien rights to your property.

How Bankruptcy Clears Lawsuits and Money Judgments

A creditor with a money judgment can use it to create a lien against any property you own, but the specific procedure will depend on your state. Here are the most common procedures:

  • the judgment will automatically create a lien against your property, or
  • the creditor must record the judgment with the county recorder or secretary of state to create or "perfect" the lien.

If your state follows the second approach, you might want to file your bankruptcy before the creditor records the judgment and creates the judgment lien. Once in place, the lien gives the creditor property rights similar to those your mortgage or car lender has in the house or car you put up as collateral, but broader. A judgment lien will usually cover all of your property.

Lien Avoidance in a Bankruptcy Case

Creditors know judgment liens are powerful, but you might be able to counter the effects by filing for bankruptcy and meeting these conditions:

  • the underlying debt is dischargeable, and
  • the lien prevents you from using an exemption to protect the property in bankruptcy.

Which Debts Are Dischargeable?

All debts are dischargeable unless the bankruptcy code states otherwise. These debts never go away:

  • child support and alimony
  • recent income taxes
  • fines and restitution
  • homeowner's association and condo fees that accrue after a bankruptcy filing
  • obligations that arise due to death or injury caused by intoxicated driving, and
  • student loans (unless you prove undue hardship in a separate action).

Also, a creditor can ask the court to declare additional debts nondischargeable by filing a lawsuit called an "adversary proceeding." The debt will get discharged unless the creditor can prove:

  • willful or malicious injury
  • money, goods, or services obtained by fraud (like debts incurred on the eve of bankruptcy), and
  • embezzlement or fraud committed while in a position of trust.

Avoiding a Judgment Lien Impairing an Exemption

Discharging the debt is only half the battle, because the bankruptcy filing doesn't change a creditor's lien rights. Eliminating all or part of a lien requires filing a motion in the bankruptcy court asking the court to "avoid" (eliminate) the lien. You must also be able to show that you can exempt (protect) some or all of the equity in the property with the lien on it.

Start by checking the federal and state property exemptions available to you—they tell you the property you can keep in bankruptcy. If successful, you can avoid the lien up to an amount equal to the property exemption. Here are two examples that illustrate how this works.

Example 1: Molly filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy to discharge her debts, including a judgment of $12,000 she owed on a credit card.

Molly's house is worth $120,000. The balance of her mortgage is $90,000. Her state allows an exemption of $40,000 on her residence, therefore, her equity of $30,000 in the house is fully covered.

The $12,000 is impairing her exemption because, with the judgment, her equity is reduced to $18,000, but without the judgment, she can exempt the full $30,000 equity. Molly will be able to avoid the judgment lien by filing a motion in the bankruptcy court because the judgment impairs her exemption.

Example 2: Reggie also has a judgment of $12,000. His home is also worth $120,000, and the balance of his mortgage is also $90,000, with $30,000 in equity. Reggie's state has an exemption for homesteads of $25,000. But his equity is $30,000. That means his exemption will not cover $5,000 of his equity. The $12,000 judgment impairs only a portion of Reggie's exemption -- $7,000. It does not impair the other $5,000 because that amount is not exempt. If Reggie files a motion to avoid the lien, the bankruptcy court will erase only part of the lien, $7,000 worth. Therefore, the lien will only be worth $5,000.

Even though Reggie can't eliminate the entire lien, he will likely see benefits that make his action worthwhile. Reducing the dollar amount can reduce the creditor's incentive to use foreclosure to collect the debt. Later, when Reggie puts the property on the market, he'll only have to pay off $5,000 (plus accrued interest) instead of the original $12,000.

The lien will remain attached to your property if you do nothing. However, if you don't address lien issues during your bankruptcy case, most courts let you reopen the case later (although this will cost you another filing fee).

Navigating Your Bankruptcy Case

Bankruptcy is an unusual area of law because it's essentially a qualification process. The laws provide instructions for completing a 50- to 60-page bankruptcy petition, and because all rules apply in every case, you can't skip a step.

The forms and resources below will help you find more information. Also, you can use this list of Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy forms to see where this topic falls. And this handy bankruptcy document checklist will help you gather the things you'll need to complete the petition.

More Bankruptcy Information

Bankruptcy Forms

You'll find fillable, downloadable forms here:

U.S. Courts Bankruptcy Form webpage

Related Information

Dealing With a Deficiency Judgment After a Car Repossession

When a Creditor Gets a Lien Against Your Property

How Much Debt Do I Need to File for Bankruptcy?

Will I Lose All My Property If I File for Bankruptcy?

Need More Info?

We want to help you find the answers you need. Go to TheBankruptcySite for more easy-to-understand bankruptcy articles, or consider buying a self-help book like The New Bankruptcy by Attorney Cara O'Neill.

We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all bankruptcy issues or the facts of your case. The best way to protect your assets in bankruptcy is by consulting with a local bankruptcy lawyer.

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