Judgment Lien inscription on piece of paper

A Guide to Judgment Liens Against Real Property in California

Law Office of David J. Hollander Oct. 12, 2023

As a property owner, you may have encountered the term ‘judgment lien.’ Liens are powerful debt-collecting tools, but they can cause complications for real estate property owners and creditors. This blog post aims to provide an in-depth understanding of these terms and the legal processes involved, particularly focusing on judgment liens against real property in California. 

If you’re in the San Diego area and need legal assistance regarding real estate or business law, contact the Law Office of David J. Hollander. Attorney David J. Hollander offers his legal services to residents across San Diego County and the rest of the state. 

Defining Real Property

While real estate refers to the physical land and the structures and resources attached to it (buildings, houses, and natural resources), real property has a broader definition. In addition to the land and anything attached to it, real property also encompasses ownership and usage rights. In the context of judgment liens, the debtor's real property becomes collateral against the debt they owe. 

Understanding Judgment Liens Against Real Property

A judgment lien is a court-sanctioned claim imposed on a debtor's property when they lose a case and owe money to the plaintiff. These liens help ensure that the owed party gets paid from the proceeds when the debtor sells or refinances their property. 

Still not clear? Consider this comparison: 

Imagine you've loaned a friend some money. But after a while, they haven't paid you back. You decide to take the matter to court, and the court agrees that your friend indeed owes you money. Now, you have a judgment from the court, but still no money. What can you do? This is where the concept of a lien comes in. 

A lien is like a sticky note you put on your friend's stuff (in this case, their property) saying, "This friend owes me money." It's a legal claim or hold on property to ensure an unpaid debt gets settled. In our context, we're talking about real estate—such as houses and land. 

In California, if you're the person owed money (the creditor), you can place a judgment lien on the debtor's real estate or personal property. How do you do this? You take or mail something called an 'Abstract of Judgment' to the county recorder's office. This is a document that summarizes the court's decision. 

Once the Abstract of Judgment is recorded, it creates a 'general' lien. Think of it as a giant sticky note that attaches to all the debtor's real property in that county. It's like tagging all your friend's items with a reminder that they owe you. This ‘sticky note’ also applies to any property they might buy in the future, for up to ten years. 

Keep in mind that the lien doesn't stop your friend from living in their house or using the property. It's just there to make sure you get your money when they sell or refinance. 

However, there are some exceptions. For instance, if your friend files for bankruptcy within 90 days of you recording the Abstract of Judgment, the lien could be 'avoided' or removed in the bankruptcy case. 

Another item to note is that recording an Abstract of Judgment may 'freeze' the debtor's homestead exemption amount, which is a law that protects a portion of a person's home from creditors. Whether this amount is determined as of the date of filing for bankruptcy can vary. 

In a nutshell, a lien is a powerful tool for someone trying to collect a debt. Like all legal matters, it's best to navigate these issues with the help of a professional, like a real estate attorney, to avoid any potential pitfalls. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Judgment Liens

  1. How long do judgment liens last? In California, a judgment lien on real property lasts for ten years. This means that if a court has ruled in favor of a creditor and placed a lien on your property due to unpaid debts, that lien will remain for a decade. During this time, the creditor has the right to repayment from the proceeds of your property if it's sold or refinanced. After these ten years, if the debt is still not fully paid, the judgment lien can be renewed for another ten years. Navigating these legal waters can be complex, which further speaks to the importance of seeking professional guidance from experienced real estate attorneys. 

  1. Is it possible to remove a judgment lien? Yes, removing a judgment lien is possible, but it's a complex process that involves paying off the debt, negotiating a settlement with the creditor, or filing a motion to vacate the judgment. All these options have their own complications and should be navigated with the help of a lawyer. 

  1. What if I ignore a judgment lien? Ignoring a judgment lien can lead to serious repercussions, including a forced sale of your property. If you can't pay off the debt and fail to remove the judgment lien, the creditor may force a sale of your property to recover their money. 

  1. Can a judgment lien affect my credit score? Yes, a judgment lien can significantly impact your credit score. It will appear on your credit report and make it difficult for you to secure loans or refinancing options. 

The Importance of an Experienced Real Estate Attorney

Dealing with judgment liens or any real estate matter can be daunting, and that's why it's essential to hire an attorney. Your lawyer can help you understand your rights, explore possible defenses, and negotiate a settlement with your creditor. They'll also help make sure all procedures are correctly followed, saving you time, money, and potential legal troubles. 

A knowledgeable attorney can guide you through the complexities of dealing with judgment liens. They can explain the legal jargon, outline your options, and provide advice tailored to your specific situation. With this customized advice, you can make informed decisions about your case. Making informed decisions is not just about knowing your options—it's about understanding the potential outcomes of each choice. Whether it's deciding how to remove the lien or negotiating a settlement, working with an attorney will help you anticipate the impacts of any decision you make. 

Get the Support You Need

Understanding judgment liens against real property requires knowledgeable and experienced guidance. While this overview provides essential information, remember that every case is unique—including yours. Retaining a trusted real estate lawyer is vital to navigating through your specific situation with success. Contact the Law Office of David J. Hollander in San Diego, California, to get the support of an honest and hardworking attorney. David J. Hollander works with clients throughout San Diego County.