If you bring a lawsuit and obtain a money judgment against someone, the judgment itself does not require him or her to actually pay you. If the defendant does not pay you voluntarily, you would still have to seek the court’s help to enforce your judgment. This is done through the issuance of a writ of execution against the defendant’s property.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of property against which you can execute: real estate and personal property. Real estate includes land and buildings, both commercial and residential. Personal property includes everything else, such as bank accounts, cars, stocks and bonds, furniture, machinery, equipment, partnership interests, etc. In short, anything that is not real estate is personal property.
Obtaining a judgment in Pennsylvania automatically gives you a lien on the real estate of the defendant located in the county in which you obtained the judgment. For personal property, however, the lien is not automatic. To obtain a lien on personal property, it is necessary to have the county sheriff serve a writ of execution on the defendant and physically levy on the personal property. This means that the sheriff would go to the defendant’s home or business, seek entry, and make a list of all of the personal property found on the premises. This property could later be sold at a sheriff’s sale to satisfy the money judgment. In the case of bank accounts the writ of execution would be accompanied by garnishment papers served on the defendant’s banking institution placing a freeze on the defendant’s bank accounts which could then be seized to satisfy the judgment.
In some cases, the sheriff performing a levy will not know whether the property being levied upon actually belongs to the defendant. For example, if the sheriff levied upon the contents of your neighbor’s house, and you had previously loaned your neighbor a lawn mower, the lawn mower might actually be included in the levy. How do you prevent the sale of your lawn mower to satisfy your neighbor’s judgment? You would have to file a property claim with the sheriff asserting your ownership interest in the lawn mower. The sheriff would then make a determination as to ownership and (hopefully) exclude your property from the levy.
In our experience, judgment debtors often “pony up” with payment after a sheriff’s levy takes place. In some cases, however, especially in the case of married persons, a judgment against one married person will be difficult to enforce against personal property because the spouse often will claim an interest in the personal property. This will effectively prevent any sale of the property to satisfy the judgment.
One final point: in Pennsylvania, there is a 20-year period of limitation for executing against personal property to satisfy a judgment; that is, execution against personal property must commence within 20 years following docketing of the judgment. Issuance of a writ of execution against personal property more than 20 years after entry of a judgment is barred; after 20 years the right is lost forever.
— Kevin Palmer