How to Remove a Judgment from Your Credit Report
Having a judgment on your credit report can hurt your score, making it hard to get approved for a loan or credit card. Fortunately, it may be possible to remove a judgment from your credit report.
What is a judgment?
In the context of debt, a judgment happens when a creditor files a lawsuit against you and the court rules in their favor. There are judgments in criminal cases, too, but only civil judgments related to debts appear on your credit report.
In the past, it was common for judgments to appear on credit reports. However, changes to federal law made it so the credit bureaus could only list public records on reports if they included certain information, including the debtor's name, address, and social security number or date of birth.
Due to these new requirements, the three major credit bureaus decided to stop reporting most judgments and tax liens. However, it's possible for judgments that meet federal criteria under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to show up — and bankruptcies still get reported.
What happens when a creditor gets a judgment?
When you owe money on a debt, your creditor will usually start out by sending you reminders and trying to get you to pay. If that doesn't work, and enough time passes, they might sell your debt to a collection agency or decide to sue you.
It's worth pointing out that the collection agency may also file a lawsuit against you if it can't collect. Regardless of who files the lawsuit, it's important to take it seriously, as ignoring it can result in the court entering a default judgment against you, which means the creditor gets everything they asked for in their filings.
Once the court rules in your creditor's favor, it can order you to pay the debt. The order can also give the creditor a variety of ways to get their money, including possibly garnishing your wages, requiring you to enter into a payment plan, or attaching a lien to any property you own.
Types of judgments
There are four types of debt-related judgments, and some are more harmful to your credit report than others. Let's take a look at each one.
An unsatisfied judgment means you still owe money to the creditor and the debt remains unresolved. This is the most damaging type of judgment for your credit score.
This is because any potential creditor looking at your credit report will see the unsatisfied judgment and regard you as a high-risk borrower. If you haven't paid past debts, future creditors will worry you won't pay future ones either.
Understandably, you may disagree with the court's decision in entering a judgment against you. However, unless you appeal the case and win, the judgment will remain on your credit report as "unsatisfied" until you pay it.
A satisfied judgment is one that has been paid or settled. You can also satisfy a judgment by filing bankruptcy and having the judgment discharged, but this is generally something you should only do as a last resort.
If you do nothing after the court enters a judgment against you, the creditor may decide to garnish your wages or take other steps to enforce the judgment. This is another way a judgment can become satisfied, but it's usually best to avoid this path.
Keep in mind that a judgment begins to accumulate interest as soon as the court enters it. This is why it's a good idea to try negotiating a payment plan or settlement agreement with your creditor as soon as possible.
Once you've paid or settled the judgment, the creditor will file something called a "satisfaction of judgment" with the court, and your judgment goes from unsatisfied to satisfied. If the creditor neglects to file this, you can file it on your own.
A satisfied judgment is less damaging to your credit report than an unsatisfied one, but paying it doesn't mean it drops off your credit report. However, it will be marked as satisfied, which is less harmful to your score.
A vacated judgment is a judgment the court has declared void. This happens when the debtor has successfully appealed the judgment and won, causing the court to reverse its decision in favor of the creditor.
This is a best case scenario for a debtor, because it means you can get the credit bureaus to remove the judgment from your credit report. Often, this is as straightforward as sending a copy of the court's order to vacate to the credit bureaus.
In some states, creditors can renew a judgment before it's due to expire. You might also hear a renewed judgment referred to as a refiled judgment or revived judgment.
Each state has its own rules that determine how long a creditor has to collect on a judgment, and these time periods can range anywhere from six to 20 years.
Likewise, every state has its own rules for whether a creditor can renew a judgment. In some states, the law limits creditors to a certain number of refilings, but other states allow creditors to renew judgments as many times as they wish, potentially keeping the judgment in place for decades.
How to find out if you have judgments against you
In the past, the easiest way to find out if you had a judgment against you was to get a copy of your credit report. Because the credit bureaus no longer include most judgments on credit reports, however, you might have to do a little more searching.
In most cases, you should already know if you have a judgment, as the legal system requires the person who files a lawsuit to notify the defendant. You have a right to defend yourself in court, and you can't do that if you have no idea you've been sued.
However, it's possible the creditor failed to serve you properly or, if your state allows service by mail, your court papers got mixed up or lost in the mail.
If you suspect you have a judgment but you never received notice of a lawsuit, any of the following are signs that a creditor has obtained a judgment against you:
Your employer notifies you of a wage garnishment
Your bank notifies you that your account has been frozen
You receive a letter or get a phone call from a collection lawyer
You can also try to search for any judgments by contacting courts where you think the judgment might have been entered. Many courts make their public records databases available online, and you can search by entering your last name.
Another option is to hire a company that does public records searches. Generally, they have more resources and can do a more extensive search in less time than you could do on your own.
4 ways to remove judgments from your credit report
If you have a judgment on your credit report, there are several methods you can try to get it removed.
1. Ask the court to validate it
By law, the credit bureaus can only report accurate information. If the court can't verify that your judgment exists, you can ask the credit bureaus to delete it.
To ask the court for validation of your judgment, send a letter to the court that entered the judgment. Include your case number so the court can easily research the judgment.
It's important to send your letter via certified mail so you have a record that the court received it. If the court is unable to validate your judgment, you can contact the credit bureaus and request a deletion.
2. File an appeal
You can also try appealing the judgment against you. If you're successful, it's possible the court will vacate your judgment, which means it must come off your credit report.
There are a number of ways you can challenge a judgment. In some cases, the creditor either can't or won't show up to fight the appeal, and the court will rule in your favor.
You may also be able to appeal because some part of the original case deviated from the normal procedure. For example, maybe you never received notice of the original lawsuit.
3. Dispute it with the credit bureaus
The credit bureaus are obligated by federal law to only report accurate information. If the details of your judgment don't match what's reported on your credit report, you can dispute it and hopefully get the credit bureaus to remove it.
To do this, compare the information listed in your judgment with everything that appears in the public records section of your credit report. Look for any discrepancies, such as incorrect dates or wrong account numbers.
Next, include copies of your credit report and the judgment with the conflicting information highlighted. Include these copies in your letter to the credit bureaus asking them to correct the mistakes or remove the judgment.
In some cases, the credit bureaus will make the corrections and you're stuck with the judgment. However, they may decide it's not worth going through the hassle of verifying the accuracy of the judgment and simply delete it instead.
In the past, getting the credit bureaus to remove a judgment this way was a longshot. However, because the credit bureaus changed their policies to comply with federal law, they're now more likely to remove a judgment than risk reporting it incorrectly.
4. Wait it out
If you've gone through all the steps to remove a judgment from your credit report and you've come up short, you can simply pay it and wait for it to drop off.
In some states, the credit bureaus must remove a judgment once it's satisfied. In others, the judgment will stay on your report until it's due to drop off, which is usually around seven years.
Tips for avoiding judgments in the future
Having a judgment filed against you can put you in a financial bind for years, as some states allow creditors to pursue collection for decades. If a creditor has obtained a judgment against you, it's important to do whatever you can to avoid getting another one.
Don't ignore debt collectors - The worst thing you can do is pretend a debt doesn't exist. The law gives you the right to ask creditors to verify your debt, so take advantage of the consumer protection laws that give you the upper hand. Ask every debt collector to provide proof that the debt belongs to you. If they can't verify the debt within 30 days, they must remove any negative information about the debt from your credit report and cease their collection efforts.
Make a budget - Creating a budget helps you keep track of how much money you're bringing in and how much you're paying out. There are plenty of free budgeting apps available online, but you can also manage just fine with a pencil and a piece of paper.
Contact creditors right away - If you get into financial difficulty, don't wait to contact your creditors. Instead, call them as soon as you suspect you might be late on your payment. Some creditors will work with you by extending your payment due date or giving you a temporary hardship forbearance. However, they're less likely to offer these options if you wait several months.
Judgment removal FAQs
The following are some of the most commonly asked questions and answers regarding getting a judgment removed from your credit report.
How many points does a judgment lower a credit score?
A judgment on your credit report can do a lot of damage to your credit score. Generally, you can expect your score to drop about 150 points or more.
Keep in mind, however, that the credit bureaus created the National Consumer Assistance Program (NCAP) in response to changes in federal law. As a result, it's quite rare for a judgment to appear on a consumer's credit report.
However, this doesn't mean you should ignore a judgment. Creditors can still pursue payment by garnishing your wages or putting a lien on your property.
How long can the judgment creditor pursue payment?
Once the creditor has obtained a judgment, the time limits for pursuing payment vary widely by state. While some states impose a six-year limit, others allow creditors to continue pursuing payment for 20 years.
Some states also allow creditors to renew judgments that have lapsed, meaning the creditor can keep going after the money. Depending on the state, creditors may be able to renew judgments indefinitely.
What happens if you can't pay a judgment filed against you?
If you can't afford to pay the judgment, you have a couple options. In many cases, creditors are willing to work out a payment plan so you can pay the judgment in smaller installments over time.
It's also possible that you're "judgment proof" and a creditor can't collect from you. When someone is judgment proof, they don't have any income or assets a creditor can seize, garnish, or attach.
For example, if you're retired, rent an apartment, and have no income besides Social Security, a creditor can get a judgment against you but they're unlikely to ever collect on it.
However, just because you're judgment proof now doesn't mean things will always be that way. If you inherit property or become employed, the law in your state may allow your creditor to pursue collection again.
This is why it's best to try setting up a payment plan as soon as possible after the court enters a judgment against you. Alternatively, you can try settling the judgment by paying a fraction of the debt in a lump sum.
Does a satisfied judgment hurt credit?
A satisfied judgment will still negatively impact your credit report, but it's not as bad as having an unsatisfied judgment on your report. In most cases, the more time that has passed since you paid or settled the judgment, the less it will affect your credit score.
How long does a judgment stay on my credit report?
Generally, a judgment will remain on your credit report for seven years. Due to the NCAP, however, most judgments won't end up on your credit report anymore.
While most judgments no longer appear on credit reports, it's still possible for some judgments to post on your report, where they can hurt your credit score and possibly stop you from getting new credit. Getting a judgment removed is easier than it used to be, so the odds of deleting it from your report are in your favor.
About the Author
Mike is a recognized credit expert and founder of Credit Takeoff. His credit advice has been featured in CNBC, Investopedia, CreditCards.com, Bankrate, Huffpost, The Simple Dollar, Reader's Digest, LendingTree, and Quickbooks. Read more.