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Skipped court date leads to frozen bank account

Erica Sandberg

November 26, 2013

QDear Erica,

I have an old credit card debt that I was taken to court for four years ago. I didn't go to the original court date (which I know now was stupid), and me and my husband's joint bank account was eventually frozen. We did go to court after that. We told the judge that I am not working, my husband's paycheck is the only thing going into that account, and his name is NOT on the debt. The judge said that they could not garish HIS paycheck, and ordered that the account be unfrozen and all our money returned. Now, over four years later, I got a “notice of taken deposition” letter in the mail, saying I have to go to the debt collector's lawyer's office. Can they really go after me again for an old debt? The situation hasn't changed. I still am not working, and my husband is our family's only income. I don't know what to do. — Jen

AHi Jen,

Don't be too hard on yourself. You did what many people in similar situations do, which is to hide your head in the sand and hope the problem magically disappears. Yet, as you found out, that approach isn't effective. In fact it's counterproductive, since you just get kicked right in the bank account by a lawsuit.

Because you did not attend the court hearing, you forfeited the opportunity to present your case. Had you gone, you could have appealed to the judge and possibly even have arranged a last-minute deal to offset the judgment. Instead, the creditor won automatically and entered a default judgment against you. At that point, they were allowed to use whatever collection method was permitted in your jurisdiction.Ask Erica

Wage garnishment, which lets a judgment creditor claim a portion of a person's paycheck until the debt is repaid, is the most common form of post-judgment collection practices. If you have real property such as a car or home, a lien may be placed so when you go to sell it, they can take what's due from the proceeds. Sometimes the judge will allow the forced sale of property or take funds from a bank account (called a levy). As you found out, the bank also might be served with papers that permit the judgment creditor to freeze an account's activity, preventing the owner from making deposits and taking withdrawals.

Thankfully, you emerged from your hiding spot to do the right thing later. By explaining that your husband had nothing to do with the debt that you were sued for, his account was thawed.

At this stage you have very little to fear. You can't be re-sued. The only issue I see is that the judgment can remain in effect for as long as your state allows. In California, for example, it's 10 years and can be renewed for another 10 years. During the time the judgment is in effect, the judgment creditor can use whatever legal arrows are in its quiver. Therefore, if you do get a job, it is possible that your wages will be garnished. And if you come into some cash, some of it might be claimed.

What if your financial circumstances stay stagnant? The judgment creditor can't do anything to you but keep reporting the judgment to the credit bureaus. A judgment may only be listed on your credit report for seven years from the date it was entered, so you have just three years until it stops showing up.

That leads us to the question of why the creditor's lawyer wants to connect. My guess is that they'd like to talk with you about arranging a payment plan. They've waited around for a long time and would like to get their money. I'm not sure why they've sent you a notice of deposition (a direction to appear somewhere to answer questions under oath), so call and find out. Do not worry — and definitely do not plunge underground again — as I believe you're safe from punitive action. Still, I'd check with an attorney who specializes in consumer debt so you can have the law on your side if and when you meet.

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