Most judgments remain on your credit report for seven years, but the impact on your financial situation can last beyond that. It's a complex topic, so let's first take a look at exactly what a judgment is and if there's anything you can do about it.
What's a Judgment?
A creditor or debt collector can sue you for nonpayment. If this happens and the creditor wins, the decision by the court (the judgment) is described on your credit report. So put simply, a judgment describes the outcome of a lawsuit.
Judgments are part of the public record, so anyone can access the court filings. The major credit bureaus report these judgments and most of these stay on your report for seven years, starting from the filing date. However, the creditor may have 10 years or longer to collect the debt and the amount of time varies by state. So even if it's removed from your report after seven years, the creditor might still be able to pursue legal remedies if you haven't paid the debt.
Check Your Credit Reports
You can check all three of your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. This is an important step to take. Check the reports for accuracy and also note the date so you can determine when the seven-year time frame ends.
If you have a judgment on your credit report, you'll see a description of the judgment as well as the amount owed. For example, a judgment might involve a wage garnishment to your paycheck.
Now, even if you pay the debt, the judgment can remain on your report for seven years. However, if you've paid or settled the debt, it should be noted on your credit report. That's better than showing a judgment that hasn't been paid.
Should You Fight It?
When a creditor decides to pursue a judgment with the court, you must be served with a summons and complaint. If you aren't served properly, these are actually grounds for a motion to vacate the judgment. If the judgment is vacated, then it must be removed from your credit reports.
Now, here's where it's also complicated. The rules and laws about judgments vary by state. So even if the judgment is vacated, you could still be pursued by the creditor who might try to start the process all over again.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit, get an attorney who knows the laws in your state. If you feel the judgment is an error and you don't owe the debt, then share this information with a qualified attorney and get advice about how to proceed.
Should You Pay It?
If you owe the debt and you're able to pay it, then do so. The creditor is required to file a "Satisfaction of Judgment" with the court. But if you can only pay part of the amount due, then negotiate with the creditor. You also want to ask the creditor (or debt collector) to agree to file a satisfaction of judgment if you can only pay part of the debt.
This will make sure that the court documents and the credit bureaus reflect that you've paid your debt. Important note: Be sure you get the agreement in writing from the creditor. And check up on this to make sure the creditor actually does follow through.
Another option to remove the judgment if you can't pay it is to declare bankruptcy. But that's hardly a desirable strategy unless you really are in a financial crisis.
Should You Ignore It?
Absolutely not! There's a statute of limitations and this varies by state, but the creditor could have at least 10 years to collect on the judgment. You could end up with garnished wages or some other unpleasantness when you least expect it. It's best to take care of the judgment as best as you can with the advice of an attorney. Ignoring it will be a very stressful way to live.
How It Affects Your Credit Score
Of course, it's very upsetting to have a judgment on your credit reports. Like most major negative events, it also has a big impact on your credit scores. But there's light ahead.
Your score will start to rebound as time goes by. In fact, each year, the judgment will have less and less impact on your score.
In the meantime, you can help your score along by paying all of your bills on time and keeping low balances on your credit cards. You can get a snapshot of your credit health every month using LendingTree's free credit score.