Civil Judgments v. Judgment Liens: What is the Difference?

A civil judgment and a judgment lien are not the same things, although they do relate to the same debt.

A civil judgment is an official decision by the court regarding a civil lawsuit. If the judgment is in favor of the plaintiff (the party filing the lawsuit), the judgment typically awards the plaintiff a sum of money that must be paid by the defendant (the party sued by the plaintiff). A civil judgment can be located in a search of civil court records.

If the judgment debtor (the defendant who lost the lawsuit) fails to voluntarily pay or “satisfy the judgment,” it is up to the judgment creditor (the plaintiff who won the lawsuit) to enforce or collect the judgment.

There are a variety of ways to enforce a civil judgment. A common method of enforcing a judgment is for the judgment creditor to file a judgment lien, which is also often referred to as an “abstract of judgment.” This is an involuntary lien that the judgment creditor files to attach to the judgment debtor’s property in the jurisdiction where the judgment lien is filed. The judgment lien is typically filed in the county recorder’s office but may also be filed at the courthouse in some jurisdictions. In general, the lien is satisfied from the sale proceeds when the judgment debtor sells the property or when a refinance occurs.

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