What Is a Conditional Judgment in Garnishment?
Generally speaking, a conditional judgment is one that depends upon contingent future events. An example of this might be when a court uses a conditional judgment as a threat for the purpose of coercion, as with, “If the party does not appear in court by the date specified, then this judgment will become final.”
The use of conditional judgments in judicial garnishment proceedings arises when the third-party garnishee fails to respond to a garnishment order and summons. As a reminder, the garnishee is neither the creditor nor debtor in the debt collection garnishment process. The garnishee is the third party who owes money to the debtor, like the debtor’s employer who owes wages to the debtor or like a bank holding the debtor’s money in a deposit account.
Normally when a third-party garnishee receives a court issued garnishment order and summons there is a time limit within which the garnishee must formally answer to the court. The most common ways a garnishee answers a garnishment order are, (1) “Sorry, but we do not have any of the debtor’s property nor do we owe the debtor any money. Please go away.”, or (2) “Yes, we have $xxxx.xx of debtor’s money. What do you want us to do with it?”
Sometimes, however, the garnishee simply ignores the garnishment order and summons and does not provide the court with any answer at all. This is where a conditional judgment may come into play, in some states.
Tennessee, for example, has a statute specifically providing for a conditional judgment if the garnishee fails to appear or answer the garnishment order. TC 26-2-209 provides:
The date garnishee’s answer is received by the court clerk shall be noted on the docket book in the proper manner, whether or not the answer discloses any property subject to garnishment. If the garnishee fails to appear or answer, a conditional judgment may be entered against the garnishee for the plaintiff’s debt, upon which a notice shall issue to the garnishee returnable at such time as the court may require, to show cause why judgment final should not be rendered against the garnishee. On failure of the garnishee to appear and show cause, the conditional judgment shall be made final, and execution awarded for the plaintiff’s entire debt and costs. [emphasis added]
The threat of this type of conditional judgment is that the whole of the defendant’s debt will be piled up the garnishee directly, whether anything is owed by the garnishee to the debtor or not, simply because the garnishee did not do what garnishees are supposed to do.
It has the look of a very effective way to compel the garnishee’s compliance. By showing up in court and answering the garnishment order, the garnishee can avoid a financially painful result. Thus, the judgment is conditional upon the garnishee’s actions.