How Long Does it Take To Recover Money Through a Lawsuit?

By Ian Richardson
Attorney at Law


Often when potential clients call our office it is because they are owed money by someone else. Commonly these situations involve suppliers of building materials or contractors who are owed money related to a construction project. Other situations involve people who have loaned money on a promissory note. We must first determine the reason that someone is owed money in order to best assess how quickly we might be able to help recover that money. In other words, the answer to “how long will it take me to collect?” is almost always the classic lawyer answer of “it depends.”

Assuming that the debt is not secured by real property (in other words that you do not have a right to foreclose on real property pursuant to a deed of trust) then the time frame for a collection lawsuit will be governed by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Assuming that a collection lawsuit is filed in North Carolina State Court, then the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure apply.

The first step on the journey to collecting money owed is filing and serving a lawsuit. Usually, under the best of circumstances, it takes between 3-5 days to serve someone with a lawsuit after it has been drafted and filed (the lawsuit must be mailed, or the lawsuit must make its way through the civil process division of the Sheriff’s Office and out to the defendant).

The next step after service of process is waiting. Under the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, after a defendant is served with a lawsuit, they have 30 days to respond. Thus, from the time we file a lawsuit until we can take any additional actions, at least 35 days will likely have passed.

Assuming the defendant does not respond to the lawsuit, we can then move forward with a default judgment. Depending on whether your pleading was verified, or not, this can be as quick as a few days in cases where the clerk can enter default, or as long as a few weeks in the event a hearing is necessary in order to secure a default judgment. In general, and to set expectations, we tend to estimate that we will be waiting an additional 30 days for a default judgment from the date on which default is entered. If the defendant responds to the lawsuit, then it can take months or even years, to finally get to a judgment – depending on how hard the defendant fights.

If the defendant does not answer the lawsuit and we secure a default judgment, we must wait an additional 30 days before taking further actions. This is the appeal period. If the defendant is a corporate defendant, then at this point – roughly 95 days from the date we filed the lawsuit, we can ask the clerk to issue a writ of execution and begin attempting to seize assets.

If a default judgment is against an individual, we must serve a Notice of Right to Have Exemptions Designated. The judgment debtor has 20 days from the date that document is served to claim exemptions. To be on the safe side, and assuming, once again, relatively easy service, we add at least another 30 days for this process to account for service of the documents.

Therefore, when a defendant does not answer a lawsuit, it will take at least 95-125 days to get to a point where we can begin execution efforts. That assumes everything has gone as well as it could go with respect to serving the defendant. Some defendants avoid service causing substantial delays. Once we are at a point where we are attempting to execute on the judgment debtor’s assets, it is impossible to determine how long it will take to locate assets suitable for execution.

What should be apparent from this post is that there is already enough delay built into the legal process. As such, we suggest instituting litigation to recover unpaid debts as quickly as possible since it will take several months, under the best of circumstances, for you to reach a point where you might recover money through a judgment.

If you have questions about recovering money from someone who owes you, we would be glad to discuss the process and the timeframes described above in more detail. Please give us a call to schedule a consultation.

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