After getting a judgment, clients and the public will ask how long it is “good for.” Other times, clients will assume that a judgment exists forever. The answer, however, is somewhat complex.
First, as a general matter, unless discharged in a Bankruptcy proceeding, the execution upon a judgment may issue against personal property within 20 years of the judgment’s entry. 42 Pa.C.S. § 5529 In practical effect, this means that a judgment creditor may direct a Sheriff to seize and sell the personal property of a debtor such as cash, jewelry, automobiles, etc. to satisfy his judgment within twenty years from entry. After 20 years, and absent some extenuating circumstances such as a Bankruptcy proceeding that stays collection of a debt but does not discharge it, or absence from the Commonwealth or concealment of the debtor’s identity by use of a false name to defraud creditors, a judgment becomes ineffective after twenty years.
That seems simple enough, but for substantial judgments it is often the case that the debtor doesn’t have personal property worth the cost of selling, but the debtor may have real property (real estate) with significant value. In order for a judgment to have effect against real property, it must be entered in the dockets and indexed against the real property in the records of the county in which the real property is situate. For example, if a creditor has a judgment against a debtor in Montgomery County, and the debtor owns real property in Chester and Lehigh Counties but none in Montgomery County, the judgment will only attach as a lien to the debtor’s real property when it is transferred from Montgomery County and docketed in Chester and/or Lehigh Counties. When the judgment is entered in a County in which the debtor has real property, it attaches as a lien against the real property for a term of five (5) years from the date of entry. If the creditor does not execute upon the judgment as against the real property within five (5) years, execution against the property may not issue unless and until the judgment creditor successfully completes a proceeding to revive the judgment. If the creditor does not revive the judgment against real property and the lien of judgment lapses, the debtor can sell or borrow against the real property without satisfying the creditor’s judgment, thus thwarting the effect of the creditor’s judgment.