What if you own a judgment and you cannot find any obvious available assets belonging to your judgment debtor; yet they seem to live in a nice house and have a nice car, (and they also lease a storage unit)? Can the contents of their storage unit be levied and then sold at a Sherriff’s auction to help satisfy your judgment? What if you do not know what is inside their storage unit, is it worth the cost of doing a levy?
This article is my opinion, and not legal advice. I am a judgment referral expert, and am not a lawyer. If you ever need any legal advice or a strategy to use, please contact a lawyer.
Paying your local Sheriff to levy and then sell the contents of your judgment debtor’s storage unit is not easy or cheap. If you think there is something of value inside it, the way to proceed varies by state, county, and the Sheriff/Marshall. One way to discover if your judgment debtor has a leased storage unit is by performing a judgment debtor exam. You could ask the debtor or a third-party related to the judgment debtor to produce their keys, and ask them what each key is for; and/or use court-approved document requests to see copies of their bank and/or credit card statements.
A storage unit levy only makes sense if there is something valuable in the judgment debtor’s storage unit. Complications and financial risks may occur, including your debtor filing for bankruptcy protection. Also, some of the property in the debtor’s storage unit might be exempt from collection, or owned by a third party.
You will need to pay a hefty deposit to the Sheriff, and you will also be responsible for the Sheriff’s costs for daily storage of the contents, which will cost substantially more than renting that storage unit. There is a chance you will be stuck paying the Sheriff’s storage fees on items while a debtor is in bankruptcy court, which could drag out the process 90 days or much more.
If the judgment debtor’s property is locked and only the debtor has the key, a Private Place Order will be required. Private Place Orders are used in home and business locations, to allow the Sheriff to (break open if necessary) enter a (debtor’s or third-party related to the debtor’s) property, and seize item(s) for levy. Usually, the creditor must specify the item(s) and their location(s) accurately, so that the Sheriff can go to the location(s) and identify the item(s).
The three storage unit levy steps below are based on my previous California experience, and your results will vary:
1) Get a writ of execution from the court for the county where the judgment debtor’s storage unit is located.
2) Talk with the workers or the management of the storage unit, and ask them if they will open the judgment debtor’s storage unit if a Sheriff shows up with a court order to seize the contents of that unit. If the locks are built-in and standard, they might say yes.
If the storage unit says yes, contact the Sheriff’s office in the county where the storage unit is. Find out what paperwork (besides the court writ) is required, the costs; and ask them to schedule a date when they can seize the contents of your debtor’s storage unit.
If it is a “bring your own lock” storage unit, or the storage unit workers cannot or will not open it when the Sheriff arrives; you will need to also get a Private Place Order, to allow the Sheriff to hire someone to break the lock to get into the debtor’s storage unit.
Tell the Sheriff you are getting a Private Place Order, and get a date estimate from the Sheriff of when they can seize the contents of the debtor’s storage unit for a later auction sale. Then, file an ex-parte motion with the court shortly before the date set by the Sheriff. Hire a lawyer if you do not know how to do this. Bring the writ, your Private Place Order, your checkbook, and your instructions to the Sheriff.
A time and money saving idea that might work, is to ask the court, as part of your proposed order; for the contents of the debtor’s storage unit to stay inside the storage unit. That way, the Sheriff can change the lock, and pay the storage rent until the auction sale of the items within. Of course, the Sheriff will deduct all their costs (including the unit storage rent), and then add them back as deductions from the auction sale. The creditor will have to pay these costs – even if nobody bids at auction, or for costs not recovered from the high bid. This idea would avoid the time and expense of the Sheriff seizing and relocating the contents. However, not every Sheriff will agree to that, some have strict policies about seizing property and storing it in their custody.
3) At the time of the levy, you can be there, to see what is in the storage unit, however the Sheriff must take custody of the contents for a later public auction. If you want something that was levied, at the auction you can credit bid (using up what is owed on your judgment) up to the amount on your writ. When there is unpaid rent, storage unit companies usually have a contractual priority lien which outranks a regular execution lien; and at a sale, and the storage facility will get paid first.