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The Debtor’s Examination and Debtor’s Prisons

There are no debtor’s prisons in the United States, but you can still be imprisoned if you do not show up for a debtor’s examination. After obtaining a court judgment, a creditor can ask a judge to order you to appear in court or in the office of the creditor’s attorney to answer questions about your income and assets to help the creditor find income or property that the creditor may seize. In some states this procedure is called a debtor’s examination, but the procedure goes by other names in other states. Some creditors routinely request a debtor’s examination. Others never do.

A debtor’s examination is a court-ordered appearance. Failure to show up can result in arrest, citation for contempt, and a jail sentence. A notice to appear for a court examination should never be ignored. Always appear or ask the court in writing for a postponement. Courts usually grant a postponement if the creditor agrees to the request or if you have a good reason.

In responding to a notice of a debtor’s examination, review your assets well before the examination. Determine if all your property is protected by law and if all your income is exempt from garnishment. If so, immediately tell the creditor’s attorney listed on the notice. This may be sufficient to get the creditor to drop the request for an examination since it will just be a waste of everyone’s time. But make sure to get this in writing—do not rely on an oral promise that the examination will be dropped.

If there is an examination, be careful how you answer questions since your answers are made under oath and often are recorded by a court reporter. Lying under oath is perjury, which is a crime punishable by jail. On the other hand, do not volunteer information until you are asked for it. If the examination reveals that you have assets or income not protected by law, the creditor can obtain court orders allowing it to seize those assets or income.

In some states, judges also have the authority to order debtors to make payments on the judgment debt. If you do not pay, the judge can hold you in contempt of court and put you in jail. But even in these states, you must be given an opportunity to prove that you do not have the financial ability to make the payments.