Because this is a summary of how to enforce a Massachusetts judgment, here are two links for more information: http://www.mass.gov/courts/selfhelp/index.html and http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/gl-235-toc.htm.
A judgment is a final order of a court, that shows a cash amount is owed by one party to another. The courts cannot help, so you must enforce it yourself, or get help to enforce your judgment.
Currently the Massachusetts interest rate (simple non-compounded annual interest) for judgments is 12%, which starts from the original action, breach, or demand (what led to, or started the lawsuit). Note that if the defendant’s defenses, setoffs, or counterclaims are deemed insubstantial, frivolous and not in good faith; the interest rate becomes 18%.
Massachusetts has three civil trial courts that address judgment enforcement matters. If the judgment amount is less than $2,000, you will be in the (District or Municipal) Small Claims court. If the judgment amount is more than $2,000 but less than $25,000, you will be in District Civil court. If the amount is more than $25,000 you will be in Superior court.
Massachusetts judgments are enforceable for 20 years. They can be renewed for another 20 years if you notify the court that the judgment has not yet been satisfied.
Only lawyers get to view case information online, mortals must drive to to a court, and go inside to use the public access terminal(s). Some terminals are propped up in a corner with cobwebs on them and have not been updated since the 1980’s, but at least you can reach other MA courts from one location. Using this system can be used to go through cases to see if they have judgments awarded, or you can try to just go through the files by hand, but that takes lots of small steps to get them to give them to you. Your going to run into limited stacks being given to you, limited viewing hours, perhaps some rude clerks that just say no, time limitations on how long you can be at a public terminal, etc.
You can usually get access through the Massachusetts Superior Court Case Information System at: www.ma-trialcourts.org (but that site seems down at the time of the latest revision of this article.)
If you are a lawyer you are not restricted to just searching by the case number. The District Courts (the lower courts that have the small claim cases) are absolutely not online to anyone except the Probation Department, that does not share their case information. The lower courts do have paper printouts of the cases organized by year in old binders on the counter and old pubic access terminals in the corner.
An unusual part of Massachusetts law is that to keep your judgment alive, you must get a Writ Of Execution (WOE) from the court, within one year of when you are entitled to get a WOE from that court. If this sounds complicated – the actual text of the law about this is even more complicated.
Massachusetts treats WOEs differently than most other states. WOEs must be obtained from the court with one year, and in general they last as long as the judgment does. If you use a WOE to successfully collect some of the debtor’s assets, you have used it up. You must then get a new WOE that shows much the debtor already paid. And you must get this new WOE within five years.
With a WOE, you can attach the debtor’s wages or their bank account, or ask the Sheriff to levy and sell a debtor’s asset. (For details, see chapter 246 of the General Laws of Massachusetts.)
To levy a bank account, you first get permission from the court. Then you take the WOE, with levy instructions, and pay the local Sheriff to levy the debtor’s bank account
To levy a judgment debtor’s wages, you have to mail the debtor notice of the wage levy request by registered mail, to give them at least ten days notice of the planned wage levy. The first $125 per week of wages are usually exempt. Then you take the WOE, with instructions, and pay the local Sheriff to levy the debtor’s wages.
You can also use a WOE to levy your judgment debtor’s personal property such as a car, jewelry, or musical instrument, or their TV set. You do not get to take the items yourself. You have to pay a Sheriff to take and store the items before they are sold at a public auction. This is not always cost-effective.
If the debtor has or will one day have equity in real estate, you can record a lien at the county registry of deeds, in the county where the debtor’s current or future property is. If the property is refinanced or sold, you might get paid. In some rare cases, you can (at great expense) force the sale of a property to satisfy your judgment.
If you are recovering judgments for others in Massachusetts, you should be a licensed as collection agency.