What Are Interrogatories in Civil Court Cases?

Legal terminology sounds like Greek to most of us. There is a lot of Latin involved, which is problematic enough. But even English words cause confusion for people outside the legal industry. Take the term ‘interrogatories’. Most people do not know what the term means. How about you?

Interrogatories are related to civil court cases. A civil case is the result of a lawsuit filed by one party against another. There are no criminal charges involved. Criminal charges are the domain of criminal courts. As for civil courts, they rely on interrogatories for the purposes of gleaning information on one party or the other.

After a Judgment Is Entered

Although interrogatories can be ordered at any point in a civil trial, they are most often avoided until after a judgment is rendered. The remainder of this post will assume such a scenario. Imagine a civil lawsuit in which the defendant is ordered to pay the plaintiff so much money. The defendant now becomes the judgment debtor while the plaintiff becomes the judgment creditor.

In the aftermath of a judgment, the debtor is legally compelled to pay whatever amount of money the judgment requires. In a perfect world, payment would be made without a hitch. But rarely do things happen this way. It is usually the case that the defendant does not have enough cash on hand to pay. Other arrangements need to be made.

The Creditor Wants More Info

A debtor may claim he does not have the money to make payment. The creditor may counter with a request for interrogatories. If granted, the creditor is allowed to submit a list of questions in writing, questions the debtor is compelled by law to answer. These questions are designed to help the creditor understand the debtor’s financial position. In essence, the creditor is looking for any possible way to secure payment.

Interrogatories pose questions relating to:

  • the debtor’s physical address and phone number
  • the debtor’s current employment situation
  • any real property owned by the debtor
  • additional assets like securities, collectibles, etc.

State laws generally prohibit creditors from asking any questions not relating to the debtor’s financial situation. Remember that the sole purpose of interrogatories is to determine whether a debtor has any reasonable means of paying. What constitutes reasonable is determined by the answers the debtor provides.

Requesting a Court Hearing

Although state laws vary on the next point, most require that interrogatories be submitted in writing. What happens if a debtor does not respond? Most states allow creditors to request a hearing at which the debtor is required to be present. The hearing is designed to force the debtor to respond to interrogatories.

Judgment Collectors, a Utah debt collection agency whose specialty is judgments, says that rules relating to such hearings differ from one state to the next. However, the net effect is the same. A court granting a hearing compels a debtor’s cooperation. The debtor either shows up and responds to questions or faces further legal action.

That further legal action could include a bench warrant issued for the debtor’s arrest. A bench warrant allows the sheriff to arrest the debtor and physically bring him to court to answer questions. Not all states allow the practice, but many do.

Just the Start of the Process

In many cases, interrogatories are just the start of a long collection process. A debtor responding positively to interrogatories can help facilitate a faster and easier collection. When debtors resist though, creditors have no choice but to escalate matters. That is just the way the game is played in civil court cases.