An Overview of a Civil Case

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How a Court Case Begins

When a person, company, or other entity files a complaint against another, this begins a civil court case. Civil cases are private disputes between one or more people, businesses, or organizations. This article will address only civil cases, and not criminal cases.


Before a court can get involved in a civil dispute, it must have the authority to settle (or “hear”) the case. This is called “jurisdiction.”

A court cannot hear a case if it does not have jurisdiction over both the parties and the subject matter of the case. If you file your case in the wrong court, the judge may dismiss it, and you will have to start over.

The cases a court can hear depend on:

  • the type or subject matter of the dispute;

  • how much money is at stake (the value of the dispute); and

  • location of the parties in the case

Jurisdiction Based on the Type of Dispute

The Michigan Constitution and other laws determine which courts can hear which kinds of cases.

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For example, most family law disputes are heard in the Family Division of a circuit court, while cases about wills or guardianship are heard in a probate court. If you need specific information about where to file your case, find the page on this website that covers your legal matter.

Jurisdiction Based on the Value of the Case

The amount of money in dispute determines which Michigan court the case can be filed in.

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$6,500 or less: If the amount of money in dispute is $6,500 or less, the case can be filed in small claims court. It can also be filed in the district court. For information on filing or defending a small claims suit, see the I Have a Small Claims Case toolkit.

$25,000 or less: If the amount of money in dispute is $25,000 or less, a district court has jurisdiction.

More than $25,000: If the amount of money in dispute is more than $25,000, a circuit court will have jurisdiction.

If you’re unsure of the dollar value of your case, file it in the court with the higher limit because courts cannot issue judgments for more than the limit. 

Jurisdiction Based on Location

Michigan courts have jurisdiction over anyone who is living in or present in Michigan when served with a lawsuit.

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Someone outside Michigan can consent to jurisdiction within the state. Companies that are incorporated in the state or do business here may also come under the jurisdiction of Michigan courts.

There are many other reasons a party may come under Michigan’s jurisdiction, such as owning property, conducting business, or harming someone within the state. If your dispute involves people, property, or activity outside of Michigan, you may want to talk to a lawyer. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find information about lawyers in your area.

Objecting to Jurisdiction

If you were served with court papers and you don’t believe you are subject to the jurisdiction of Michigan courts, you must say so in your first motion or answer, whichever you file first.

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If you don’t, you cannot raise the issue again. If you think the court where the case was filed doesn’t have jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case, you can raise this issue at any time.


Civil cases are usually heard where the dispute happened. This is the venue.

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Generally, the correct venue for a particular case is one that is most convenient. It should be the place that is least burdensome and costly for the parties and the court system.

Each county has its own circuit, probate, and district courts. The plaintiff should file the claim in the appropriate court of the venue county.

If you think the plaintiff filed the claim in the wrong venue, you can object. You must file a motion for change of venue before or at the same time as you first file an answer in the case.

If a case is filed in a wrong or inconvenient venue, it may be transferred to another Michigan court, or the plaintiff may have to start the case over. 

Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations (SOL) is the time allowed by law to file a case. Not every type of case has a SOL, and the SOL is different for different kinds of legal matters.

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For example, a creditor must file a debt collection case within six years of the last activity on the account. If a case is filed after the SOL has expired, the defendant can have the case dismissed.

To learn whether a SOL applies to your legal matter, read the information in the appropriate toolkit on this website. If you think the SOL is expired or you don’t know how to measure it, you may want to talk to a lawyer. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find information about lawyers in your area.


The plaintiff is the person or party who files the complaint. The defendant is the person or party whom the case is filed against. They are the parties to the case.

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In some kinds of cases, the plaintiff and defendant are called the petitioner and respondent.

Not every person can file a case. The plaintiff must be someone who stands to gain or lose by the outcome of the case. In very few situations, a person may file a lawsuit on behalf of someone else who has an interest in the outcome.


From the initial filing until the final order, a court case involves a lot of paperwork. Pleadings are the main documents in a court case, and they must all be filed with the court.

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The lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files the complaint. The defendant can file an answer after getting the complaint. The defendant may also file a crossclaim or counterclaim with the answer. The plaintiff can then respond to any cross- or counterclaim or file a response to the answer.

When certain pleadings are filed (a complaint, cross-claim, counterclaim, or an “answer demanding a reply”), the other party must file a responsive pleading, such as an answer. There are deadlines to file responsive pleadings. To know how many days you have to respond to a pleading, look at the summons (if there is one), read the information in the appropriate toolkit on this website, or contact the court clerk. If you don’t file an answer by the deadline, the judge can enter an order of default against you, and then the judge will decide the outcome of the case without your input.

Each party must state every allegation or statement of fact in a pleading using language that is clear and concise.

All documents filed in court must be signed by the person filing them (or by that person’s lawyer). By signing, a party is saying they’ve read the document and believe it’s true, allowed by the law, and appropriate.

There are case-specific court forms available for many types of cases. You can complete some forms using this website’s Do-It-Yourself tools. You can find others by searching Michigan’s One Court of Justice website. Court forms are not available for all pleadings in every case. You may have to write your own pleadings to the best of your ability, or get help from a lawyer. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find information about lawyers in your area.


The summons is a form that notifies the defendant of the case. It also tells the defendant to respond by filing an answer within a specific time limit. 

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If the defendant doesn’t respond within that time, a judgment may be entered without a hearing, giving the plaintiff whatever they asked for. This is called a default judgment.

The summons expires 91 days after it’s issued. The plaintiff must serve the summons and complaint on the defendant within this time limit or the judge will dismiss the case.


A lawsuit starts when the plaintiff files a complaint with the court. The complaint is the document that explains the dispute. The plaintiff uses it to tell the judge and the defendant why the suit was filed. 

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It must:

  • Include the facts the suit is based upon,

  • Number each claim or allegation made, and

  • Tell the court what the plaintiff hopes to get out of the suit (the “relief”), which is often money.

For example, in a suit to collect a debt, the complaint may say something like:

  1. Defendant applied for and was given a credit card by Plaintiff on December 7, 2013, and executed a Credit Card Agreement at that time.

  2. Defendant charged $5000 to his credit card in 2014.

  3. Defendant failed to make monthly payments on the account as required by the credit card agreement.

  4. Defendant now owes $6,730 to Plaintiff, including interest and other charges.

Relief requested: Plaintiff claims judgment in the sum of $6,730, plus interest, costs, and attorney fees.

The plaintiff must pay a filing fee when filing the complaint. The filing fee varies depending on the type of case. If you can’t afford to pay the filing fee, you can ask the court to waive your fees. You can use the Do-It-Yourself Fee Waiver for this. Your case will not start until you pay the filing fees or the judge approves your fee waiver.

When the complaint is filed with the court, the clerk will assign it a case number. A judge may also be assigned to the case at this time. It is very difficult to change the judge assigned to a case. This happens very rarely, and only in response to very serious and proven claims of bias or conflict of interest.


Every time you file something with the court, you must give the other party in your case (or their lawyer, if they have one) a copy of what you filed. This is called service. Every time you serve the other party, you must give the court proof that you did so. This is called proof of service, or proof of mailing. The following video from Lakeshore Legal Aid has an overview of the service rules:

The First Filing

The papers you file to start your court case (the summons and complaint) must be served on the defendant in person or by certified mail.

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A party to the case (such as the plaintiff) cannot be the one to serve the court papers. The server can be an adult friend or relative, or the local sheriff’s department, police department, or process server. Law enforcement and process servers will charge a fee.

For personal service, the server gives the summons and complaint to the defendant in person.

For service by mail, the server must send the papers by certified mail, with a return receipt requested and delivery restricted to the defendant. This means the defendant must sign a receipt to get the papers. The receipt (a green postcard) will then be mailed back to the server. The post office charges a fee for this service.

The plaintiff must let the court know when and how the defendant was served. This is done with a proof of service, which the plaintiff should file with the court before the summons expires. The second or back page of the summons court form has a section to complete for proof of service.  Proof can be shown by:

  • Defendant’s signature, confirming receipt of the summons and complaint;

  • A sworn statement by the person who gave the defendant the summons and complaint; or

  • The return receipt (a green postcard) from the post office, signed by the defendant.

You or the server must file the proof of service or acknowledgement of service with the court where you filed your case. If the server used certified mail, he or she must complete the proof of service form on the back of the summons and attach the green return receipt. The server’s signature may have to be notarized.

If the server has tried to serve the documents several times without success, the plaintiff can ask the judge to extend the deadline or for permission to complete service by regular first-class mail or another way (alternate service). If the summons expires before the defendant is served, the judge will dismiss the case.

For specific information about how to serve a summons and complaint, find the toolkit on this website that covers your legal matter.

All Other Filings

After serving the summons and complaint papers in your case, service of later papers is easier. 

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You can serve the other party (or their lawyer) with the rest of the papers in your case by:

  • Mailing a copy by regular mail to the address they gave in their court documents;

  • Handing a copy to them in person;

  • Serving electronically in MiFILE (Only if your court is using e-Filing. To learn more, read E-Filing Basics.);

  • Serving by e-mail if you and the other party have agree to service by e-mail; or

  • Leaving a copy at their home with an adult who also lives there.

Every time you do this, fill out and file a proof of service or proof of mailing form saying which papers were served, and when. If you used a Do-It-Yourself tool on this website to draft your court forms, you will have one or more blank proof of service or proof of mailing forms for this purpose. If not, you can search for a form at Michigan’s One Court of Justice website. If you want a blank proof of mailing form to fill in on your own, you can download a copy from the Michigan One Court of Justice website.

As with every court paper you file, keep a copy of the proof of service or mailing for your records.

What Happens During My Case?

After you file the summons and complaint your case is started. Once the defendant gets notice of the case, they will have the opportunity to present their side of the story. (This article will address what happens during a civil court case.)


The defendant can file an answer with the court. This is the defendant’s opportunity to present the other side of the story.

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You can prepare an answer to a debt collection case or eviction case on this website using the Do-It-Yourself Civil Answer tool or the Do-It-Yourself Answer to Eviction tool. You can also search for a specific Do-It-Yourself answer in the toolkit for your legal matter, such as divorce or custody.

Along with the answer, the defendant can file defenses to explain why something happened. The defendant can also file a counterclaim, which is the defendant’s own lawsuit against the plaintiff in the case. These are explained below.

The defendant must file the answer in the same court where the complaint was filed. If the defendant was served in person, an answer must be filed within 21 days after getting the summons. If the defendant was served by mail, an answer must be filed within 28 days after getting the summons.

In the answer, the defendant must answer each claim or allegation made in the complaint. The defendant must number the statements in the answer to match the numbering of the claims in the complaint. There are three ways to answer each claim. The defendant can agree or disagree with the plaintiff’s claim, or say “I don’t know.” The defendant can also include more information in each statement.

An answer to the complaint above might look like this:

  1. I agree with the statements in paragraph 1.

  2. I agree with the statements in paragraph 2.

  3. I disagree with the statements in paragraph 3. Defendant made payments of $1,250 by check in January, February, March, and April 2014. See Exhibits 1, 2, 3, and 4.

  4. I do not know if the statements in paragraph 4 are true.

The defendant must file the answer with the court and serve a copy on all the parties. Serving documents after the case has been started is easier than serving the initial complaint in the case. See “Service” above.


A defense is a good reason why the defendant should not lose the case, even if the claim or allegation made in the complaint is true. 

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If the defendant wants to file a defense, it must be filed with the answer. The defendant should list each defense in a numbered paragraph. If a defense is filed with the answer, make sure it includes a statement of the facts, and the title of the document should be “Answer and Affirmative Defense(s).”

If you think you have a defense, you may want to contact a lawyer for help. Defenses can be difficult to prove in court. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find information about lawyers in your area.


A defendant who believes the plaintiff owes them something related to the same facts in the complaint should file a counterclaim. 

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All claims related to the claims made in the complaint must be raised in the same lawsuit. For example, a tenant in an eviction case can file a counterclaim against the landlord for the cost of repairs the landlord didn’t do. If you think you have a counterclaim, you may want to talk to a lawyer. Use Guide to Legal Help to find information about lawyers in your area.

Amended Pleadings

You may make a mistake in pleadings you filed with the court. If this happens, you should “amend” or change the pleading.

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Within 14 days after the defendant serves an answer, the party who needs to can amend a pleading without getting permission from the judge. If more than 14 days have passed since the defendant served an answer, the party needs to get permission from the judge to amend. You do this by filing a motion.

Jury Demand

In some types of cases, a jury may make the final decision. If either party wants a jury, that party must ask for a jury trial and pay a fee. 

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In a civil case, a jury is a made up of 6 people. Generally, a party requesting a jury trial must file a jury demand within 28 days of when the answer was filed. In eviction cases, tenants who want a jury trial must ask for it in their first response to the eviction complaint, and pay the fee at that time. The plaintiff can also ask for a jury trial as part of the complaint, but it must be clearly stated.

How the Jury Is Selected

If you want a jury trial, you and the other attorney or party will both select the jury. The goal of the selection process is to make sure the jury is neutral and fair. 

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There are rules that must be followed when selecting a jury. The process starts with a panel of many potential jurors. To qualify as a juror you must:

  • be a citizen of the United States,

  • be at least 18 years old,

  • be a resident of the area in which the court is located,

  • be able to communicate in the English language,

  • be physically and mentally able to be a juror,

  • not have served as a juror within the last 12 months, and

  • not have been convicted of a felony.

The Voir Dire Process

Voir Dire is the process of questioning potential jurors. You should ask questions that will help you learn about their opinions, beliefs, and background. 

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This will help you decide if you the potential juror can be neutral and fair. The judge may do the questioning or allow the parties to do the questioning. It is a good idea to ask the possible jurors open-ended questions. This will help you gather as much information as possible.

Challenges to Jurors

Possible jurors can then be dismissed for cause or by peremptory challenges until the jury is selected. If you think a potential juror’s characteristics and experiences may affect their ability to be neutral and fair, you can try to remove them through a challenge. 

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There are two types to challenges: challenge for cause and peremptory challenge. A challenge for cause is when a law prevents a person from acting as a juror. There is no limit on the number of for cause challenges.

A possible juror could be dismissed for cause because they:

  • are not qualified to be a juror

  • are biased for or against a party or lawyer

  • have a state of mind that will not allow them to render a fair verdict

  • have opinions or doubts that would influence their verdict

  • are a witness in the action

  • already served as a juror for the same issue

  • served as a juror in a criminal case based on the same event

  • have a family relationship or association with one of the parties or lawyers

  • are the guardian, conservator, ward, landlord, tenant, employer, employee, partner, or client of  a party or lawyer

  • are or have been involved in a civil lawsuit against a party or attorney, or been involved in a criminal case with the party

  • have a financial interest (other than a taxpayer) in the outcome of the case

  • have some other personal interest in the outcome of the case

A peremptory challenge is when you ask to excuse a juror without any specific reason or explanation. For example, you can use a peremptory challenge to excuse a juror if you feel they will not be able to provide a neutral opinion in your case.  There is a rule that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or gender in the jury selection.


After the defendant files an answer, the judge may notify all parties of a pre-trial conference or hearing. This is where deadlines for the case are set. It may also include a referral to case evaluation.

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Deadlines may include a discovery period and directions for exchanging witness lists and filing trial briefs. Witness lists must include the name of each with witness and the witness’s address, if known. There isn’t a court form for witness lists. If you need to make a witness list, you may want to contact a lawyer. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area. 

Once the deadlines are established, the judge will send the parties a scheduling order. It will list the deadlines set during the pre-trial conference. It is important to appear at all meetings, hearings, mediations, or investigations the judge schedules.


Discovery is the step in a lawsuit where the plaintiff and the defendant try to get as much information from each other as possible. 

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There are very specific rules for discovery in the Michigan Court Rules. If your case involves a great deal of discovery, you may want to contact a lawyer. Use Guide to Legal Help to find information about lawyers in your area.

Types of discovery include document requests, interrogatories (list of written questions requiring a written response), and depositions (interviews of witnesses who are under oath). There are no court forms for discovery requests. You will have to draft your requests to the best of your ability, or talk to a lawyer.

If someone who is not a party to the case has information to support your claims, you may ask the court to issue a subpoena to require them to share it with you. Search the Michigan One Court of Justice website for the appropriate court form.

For more information about discovery, including subpoenas, read What Is Discovery? (coming soon). 


Motions are used to ask the judge to make a decision about something before or during the trial. In family law cases, motions are also used after a judgment. 

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For example, a parent with a final custody order may later file a motion to change parenting time.

Parties must make motions in writing, unless they’re made orally as part of a hearing or trial. The motion should explain what the party wants. Usually, the judge won’t make a decision on the motion until he or she hears arguments from both sides at a motion hearing. The party who files the motion is called the moving party. The moving party must request and schedule the hearing on the motion. The party responding to the motion is called the respondent. Either party can file a motion; it does not matter which party started the case.

Every motion filed must be served on the other party or attorney, either by mail or in person. Service by mail must be done at least nine days before the hearing. Personal service must be done at least seven days before the hearing. The other party can respond to the motion, but the response must be served by mail at least five days before the hearing, or delivered in person at least three days before the hearing.

To learn more about serving motions, see “Service” above.

To learn more about specific common motions in civil cases, read Common Motions in Civil Cases (coming soon). 

Appearing in Court

Remember that when you represent yourself in court, you’re expected to follow the same rules that apply to lawyers. Information and a video about appearing in court are available in our Going to Court section. Also check information at the court or on the court’s website to see if there are any additional local court rules.

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Be prepared to spend most of the morning or afternoon in court. Bring your witnesses and your evidence with you.

Dress neatly. Bring an extra copy of your most recent filing in case the judge needs one. Arrive 10 or 15 minutes before your hearing is scheduled. Let the court know you’re there by telling the clerk or officer sitting by the judge’s bench, but do not interrupt the current proceeding. Wait for your name to be called.

When you are called, go to the podium and tell the judge:

  • Your name

  • That you’re representing yourself

  • What you would like the court to order

  • The facts or reasons for your request, including the evidence you’ve brought

  • If you have any witnesses who are willing to testify

  • Any other information you think the court should hear

Speak only to the judge, not to the other party or their lawyer. Answer the judge’s questions clearly and directly. Don’t interrupt the judge or the other party. If the judge wants to hear from your other witnesses, ask them to tell the court what they know or saw regarding your situation.


The information each side presents to the court is evidence. In addition to your own pleadings and testimony, you may want the judge to hear and see other proof to support your claims. 

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If you bring other people to testify at your hearing, these are called witnesses. The testimony of all witnesses, including the parties to the case, will be limited to subjects of which they have firsthand knowledge. If you need someone to testify who is unwilling to come, you may ask the court to issue a subpoena to require their attendance at the hearing. Search the Michigan One Court of Justice website for the appropriate court form.

If you bring documents, photos, or other objects to support your claims, this is physical evidence. There are very specific court rules about how to introduce evidence during your hearing. You must ask the judge’s permission to share your evidence with the court. Label and number your pieces of evidence, and bring extra copies to show the other party. You should also be prepared to “authenticate” your evidence, that is, to explain where it came from, how and when.

To learn more about evidence, watch the video Evidence Basics in Michigan from Lakeshore Legal Aid:

For more information, read Presenting Evidence in Court (coming soon).

Resolving the Case

There are several ways to resolve a case. There can be a trial that is decided by a judge or a jury, a settlement, or a default judgment.


If a judge hears the evidence and decides a case, it’s called a bench trial. The judgment is the judge’s final order that says what will happen because of the decision, such as one party paying money to the other.

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In a jury trial, a jury hears the evidence and issues a verdict. The verdict may say what will happen as a result, such as how much money one party must pay to the other. If a party wants a jury trial, a request for it must be made in the complaint or the answer.


A default judgment is a court order saying one party won because the other party did not respond or come to court. In other words, if the defendant chooses to not participate, then the plaintiff automatically wins.

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If you received a default or default judgment, you may be able to ask the court to set it aside so you can take part in the lawsuit. For more information, see Setting Aside a Default or Default Judgment in a Debt Collection Case or I Need to Set Aside a Default Judgment in an Eviction.


The plaintiff and defendant could come to an agreement about the case without having a trial. This is a settlement.

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An out-of-court settlement is an agreement made between the parties without involving the court. If the parties reach a settlement, the plaintiff will dismiss the complaint, and the court will close the case. The parties should put any such settlement into writing and sign it. Each side should keep a copy of the signed agreement.

A consent judgment is an agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant in an ongoing case and approved by the judge. This makes the settlement part of the public court record.

To learn more about this process, see Mediation and Other Forms of Settlement and Settlement and Negotiation Strategies.

What Happens After My Case?

Appealing a Judgment

If you disagree with the judge’s ruling, you may be entitled to ask a higher court to review that decision. This is called an appeal. Appeals can be complicated, and strict time limits apply. You may want to get help from lawyer.

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If your case is criminal or involves termination of parental rights case, and the lower court determined you are indigent (can't afford to hire an attorney), that court will appoint a lawyer to represent you on appeal. You need to sign and return the Request for Counsel form provided by the lower court within the time limit.

For more information, see the manual created by the Michigan Court of Appeals to help non-lawyers file appeals. The manual is a procedural guide. It provides forms and explanations for those forms, but does not provide legal advice.

If you want legal advice, use Guide to Legal Help to find information about lawyers in your area.

Enforcing a Judgment

At the end of a case, the court issues a judgment or the parties reach a settlement. The judgment or settlement says what the parties must do.

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Often, it orders one party to pay money to the other. A judgment could also include an injunction, which is an order from the court telling one of the parties to stop doing something.

The party who wins then has the right to collect the money awarded from the other party. The losing party can pay the entire amount of the judgment. Or, the parties can agree on a payment plan, ask the judge to order one, or later a party can file a motion for installment payments. If it’s paid over time, interest may be added to the amount of the award.

If a party doesn’t do what it is ordered to do, the other party may have to enforce the judgment. If the judgment is for an amount of money, and the debtor isn’t paying it according to the agreement, the other party can garnish wages, tax returns, or bank accounts. See the I'm Being Garnished for a Debt That Is Not Child Support toolkit to learn more.

When the judgment is paid, the party who received the payment should file a Certificate of Satisfied Judgment to let the court know it’s completed.