Urgent! Did You Get a Warrant in Debt from a Virginia Court?

Here’s what you need to know.

A warrant in debt is what they call it in Virginia when a creditor is suing you in General District Court. Warrant makes it sound a little worse than it is, but it is bad enough. It is not a criminal law problem—you can’t go to jail; but they are trying to make you pay.

A creditor wants you to pay—and if nothing else works, they want to make you pay with a garnishment. (A garnishment is a court order to your bank or your payroll office to send part of your money to the court instead of you.)

(Under the law, they can only garnish 25% of your paycheck; but they will garnish the entire bank account.)

In order to get a garnishment, a creditor first has to take you to court and win. Taking you to court starts with sending you court papers. Those court papers are the “warrant in debt.”

(They have to take you to court in Virginia if you live in Virginia. You should keep that in mind when you get threat letters from lawyers. A lawyer in Atlanta GA probably doesn’t come to Virginia to take people to court. A lawyer in Rockville MD probably does. A lawyer in Richmond VA does almost for sure.)

The way you get served with a warrant in debt is for the sheriff to come around and tape it to your door. The creditor will also mail you a copy. The warrant in debt will have a return date which is your first court date. You can find that return date in the upper right hand corner.

YOUR FIRST WARRANT IN DEBT COURT DATE

If you admit you owe the money or don’t show up on your first warrant in debt court date, they get a judgment. Ten days after the judgment, then they can get the garnishment.

(You have ten days to note your appeal; but to appeal you have to pay into court the amount of the judgment—that’s probably impossible for you to do.)

Around here, most people don’t show up for their court date, so they automatically plead guilty to owing the debt. Ignoring court papers is usually not a good idea, and especially not in Virginia where the judges don’t lose sleep over whether you understood what was happening.

(A lot of people call the lawyer for the creditor and ask, “Do I have to come to court?”  And usually the answer to that is no—you don’t have to come to court.  It’s just if you don’t come to court you plead guilty and they can start garnishing you in ten days.)

(The Virginia warrant in debt official form, also tells you that you don’t have to appear. So most people don’t. Which means most people just plead guilty.)

Most people who do show up for court, just plead guilty.

The judge says, “Do you owe this money?”

“Yes, but I can’t pay it right now.” Judge, “OK, you can discuss it with that lawyer after court.”

Do that, and you just pled guilty! The ONLY judge who cares about whether you can pay is a bankruptcy judge. Bankruptcy judges worry full time about whether people can pay, so the other judges don’t have to worry about it at all. And they don’t.

If you go to court on a warrant in debt, you should tell the judge you are not admitting you owe the money and you want a trial. Some judges will really crowd you to just plead guilty, but if you stand your ground they can’t make you.

YOUR TRIAL

If you show up for your first warrant in debt court date, don’t plead guilty and do ask for a trial, you’ll get a trial date a month or two later. At the trial you need to stop the creditor from proving that you owe the money. So you should use that month or two to talk to a lawyer, get ready to fight them yourself, or maybe try to work out a payment schedule.

(If you want to work out a payment schedule, you want to show up for court and ask for a trial. That gives the lawyer for the creditor the idea that you know a little about your rights—and so the lawyer has some reason to be fair to you.)

If you plan to fight them at the trial—with or without a lawyer—you need to first file your grounds of defense. Your grounds of defense are the reasons you think you don’t owe the money. At your first court date, the judge will give you a date for your grounds of defense. Miss that, and, you just pled guilty.

(Virginia’s system makes it easy to plead guilty to owing the money. Ignoring the first warrant in debt court date—you just pled guilty. Showing up and admitting you owe the money—you just pled guilty. Missing your grounds of defense deadline—oops, you just pled guilty. In other words, to fight a warrant in debt, you first have to show up in person; second, you have to ask for a trial; then third, you also have to answer in writing. You have to do all three.)

So, if you send in your grounds of defense, then you have the right to show up for trial and defend yourself.

The creditor’s lawyer probably appears in that court on hundreds or thousands of warrants in debt each year. You’re there for the first time. That gives you an idea your chances of winning without a lawyer are not all that good.

Still you have a better chance if you are being sued by a debt collector—somebody you never heard of like Asset Acceptance, NCO, CG Services, Cavalry Portfolio, or Midland—rather than being sued by the company you dealt with, like Ford Motor Credit, Bank of America or Fairfax Hospital. If you know how to object to their evidence and make them prove that they really own the debt, you have a chance of winning.

(Here’s a link to a short blog about a guy who did this and beat the warrant in debt from Midland.)

If this debt has bounced around from debt collector to debt collector, you might also win on the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations means if they left you alone for too long, they are too late. But they are only too late if you say so. Statute of limitations is an affirmative defense—meaning you have to show up and argue it; the judge won’t raise it for you. (And you’d have to put it in your grounds of defense.)

How long is the statute of limitations? It depends. The original creditor, especially a credit card company, probably will produce a notice they claim they sent you where you agree that the law of some state you’ve never been to controls the statute of limitations; and they picked that state because it has a long one.

A debt collector, however, may not have any kind of notice, so then you are protected by Virginia statute of limitations. How long is that? Maybe three years, maybe five. (Sorry I can’t be more specific than that.) It depends.

GETTING SUED IN THE WRONG COUNTY

One way to get some leverage on your creditor is if they sue you with a warrant in debt in the wrong county. A debt collector—those guys like Asset Acceptance, NCO, CG Services, Cavalry Portfolio—they are required to sue you in the judicial where you live. (Or where you signed the contract; meaning where you financed the car, for example.) In Northern Virginia, each county and Alexandria City is a judicial district. (Except Loudoun and Fauquier share a district. And Stafford shares a district with Fredericksburg and Spottsylvania.)

An original creditor who uses a lawyer is bound by the same rules. The have to sue you in your home county.

If you get sued in the wrong county, that’s a violation of the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act–known as the FDCPA. And you can sue them for violating your rights!

GETTING SUED BY CAPITAL ONE IN RICHMOND

Capital One sues nearly everybody in Richmond. (Or the nearby counties of Henrico or Chesterfield.) They can get away with that, because they don’t use a lawyer. However, you don’t have to just give up. And you don’t have to leave Northern Virginia at 5:00 AM driving down I-95 to get to Richmond at 8:30, either. On the back of the warrant in debt, lower left, it explains that you have the right to object to venue. If you follow those instructions and say you can’t get to Richmond and ask the judge to please move it to your home county, the judge will nearly always do it.

Then Capital One will show up several weeks later in your home county, with a lawyer. And so you start from there.

NOW WHAT?

OK. Suppose you showed up for your warrant in debt return date, asked for a trial, and filed your grounds of defense in writing. Now what?

You have some tough decisions. If the debt is something that you owe—and that you can afford to pay—you should pay it off. (No, they do not have to accept payment arrangements; by warrant in debt time you are way too late for that.)

If you don’t owe it—or are not sure—even before you go to court, ask for a trial, you should try to find a lawyer who will help with that kind of thing. (People who do that kind of work in Loudoun County,  Burke Walker and in Fairfax, Erin Witte.   In the Richmond area, Jason Krumbein. )

When you go to court on your first court day, and you tell the judge you want a trial, you should also ask for a “bill of particulars.” The bill of particulars is their writing proving that you do owe the money. That will give you some idea about how strong or weak their evidence is. If you get a lawyer to help you, he will really want to study their bill of particulars.

If you owe the money but can’t pay, then it’s probably time to talk to a bankruptcy lawyer.

Two million people will file bankruptcy nationally this year. Thirty thousand here in Virginia. Although the changes in the law in 2005 made bankruptcy more complicated, for most people bankruptcy still works.

I’m a bankruptcy lawyer and I’ve helped twelve thousand people get debt relief under the bankruptcy code. (I’m also designated a debt relief agency.)

If you get a warrant in debt for money you owe but can’t pay, I invite you to find out more about Virginia Bankruptcy Law here.

Hope this is helpful. Good luck.

PS Six hundred of people have filed bankruptcy with me in the past year. Half of them after they got a warrant in debt. Hundreds have written their comments for you here. Most people rate us five stars for quality and service, and say they recommend me to their friends.

Many people put off talking to a bankruptcy lawyer, because they think bankruptcy is some kind of punishment because you can’t pay your debts. That’s complete wrong.

The purpose of bankruptcy is to help you.

Bankruptcy offers a “new opportunity in life and a clear field for future effort.” That’s from the Supreme Court. What my clients tell me is two things. They get immediate relief, and long term happiness.

You don’t have to take my word for it. There was a survey of 184 people who filed bankruptcy with me about three years ago. You can click here to read all about it.

The survey backs up what my clients tell me in person For most, filing bankruptcy is one of the best decisions they ever made. And they are sorry they didn’t see me sooner.

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