A collection agent or law firm that owns a collection account is a creditor. A creditor has several legal means of collecting a debt. But before the creditor can start, the creditor must go to court to receive a judgment. See the Bills.com resource Served Summons and Complaint to learn more about this process.
The court may decide to grant a judgment to the creditor. A judgment is a declaration by a court that the creditor has the legal right to demand a wage garnishment, a levy on the debtor’s bank accounts, and a lien against the debtor that affects the debtor’s property. A creditor that is granted a judgment is called a "judgment-creditor." Which of these tools the creditor will use depends on the circumstances. We discuss each of these remedies below.
The most common method used by judgment-creditors to enforce judgments is wage garnishment. A judgment-creditor contacts your employer and requires the employer to deduct a certain portion of your wages each pay period and send the money to the creditor.
There is no wage garnishment in Pennsylvania, with three exceptions. The exceptions are landlord-tenant cases, child-support cases, and federal administrative wage garnishment actions, such as delinquent federal student loans. However, bank levies, which are called bank garnishments in Pennsylvania, are permitted (see below).
Under Pennsylvania law, arrearages in child support payments may result in attachment on wages as set forth in Section 4348 - Title 23 - Domestic Relations, regulated by the Consumer Credit Protection Act. Arrearages in child support payments may also be recovered from lottery winnings as set forth in Section 4308 - Title 23 - Domestic Relations.
A levy means that the creditor has the right to take whatever money in a debtor’s account and apply the funds to the balance of the judgment. Again, the procedure for levying bank accounts, as well as what amount, if any, a debtor can claim as exempt from the levy, is governed by state law. Many states exempt certain amounts and certain types of funds from bank levies, so a debtor should review his or her state’s laws to find if a bank account can be levied. Some states call levy attachment or garnishment.
In Pennsylvania, a bank account levy is allowed under Section 9607 - Title 13 - Commercial Code, but only after judgment is awarded. Pennsylvania has a $300 statutory exemption for account levy (42 Pa. C.S.A. Section 8123). Marital assets are exempt, and banks must notify the creditor of recurring electronic deposits, such as payroll, Social Security benefits, disability payments, and so on, that might be exempt if the account contains less than $10,000. All garnishments and levies in Pennsylvania must be served by the sheriff.
If you reside in another state, see the Bills.com Account Levy resource to learn more about the general rules for this remedy.
A lien is an encumbrance, a claim, against a debtor that affects the debtor’s property. For example, if the debtor owns a home, a creditor with a judgment has the right to place a lien on the home, meaning that if the debtor sells or refinances the home, the debtor will be required to pay the judgment out of the proceeds of the sale or refinance, after satisfying any liens that are in line ahead of one associated with the debt, such as any mortgages on the property. If the amount of the judgment is more than the amount of equity in your home, then the lien may prevent the debtor from selling or refinancing until the debtor can pay off the judgment.
Under Pennsylvania law, Section 5107 - Title 12 - Commerce And Trade, "If a creditor has obtained a judgment on a claim against the debtor, the creditor, if the court so orders, subject to the limitations of sections 5108 and 5109, may levy execution on the asset transferred or its proceeds. Notwithstanding voidability of a transfer or an obligation under this chapter, a good faith transferee or obligee is entitled, to the extent of the value given the debtor for the transfer or obligation, to: (1) a lien on or a right to retain any interest in the asset transferred.
If you reside in another state, see the Bills.com Liens & How to Resolve Them article to learn more.
Each state has its own statute of limitations on judgments. Under Pennsylvania law, the following statute of limitations apply:
For credit card and other forms of consumer debt, most Pennsylvania judges apply a 4 year statute of limitations. In 2012, however, a Pennsylvania federal court created a two-step analysis in determining which statute of limitations applies in cases where the lender is headquartered outside Pennsylvania and has a statute of limitations shorter than Pennsylvania's. The court looked at the choice of law provision in the contract (a credit card agreement) and then looked at the place where payments were to be sent. The court found the failure of the creditor to receive the payment in its state was the injury, triggering that state's statute of limitations (Hamid v. Stock & Grimes, LLP, PICS Case No. 12-1179 [E.D. Pa. June 12, 2012] applying the Pennsylvania Uniform Statute of Limitations on Foreign Claims Act, [42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Section 5521b]).
Pennsylvania foreclosure laws can be found in conjunction with the various types of real property such as Planned Communities, Condominiums, and Co-ops. To learn more about the rules surrounding foreclosure in this state, including deficiency balances please refer to Title 68 - Real and Personal Property. Pennsylvania has a deficiency judgment rule as described in Section 8103 - Title 42 - Judiciary And Judicial Procedure. A lender can sue for deficiency within six months after the foreclosure.
Consult with a Pennsylvania state attorney experienced in civil litigation to get precise answers to your questions about liens, levies, and garnishment in Pennsylvania. If you cannot afford an attorney, you can navigate the process yourself by taking advantage of the Pennsylvania court’s self-help resources — for example, you can find general information in the FAQ section, while many of the forms you will need are available for download at the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System forms page. Again, you should find an attorney if possible, but if you cannot, the resources listed should prove helpful.