When you're involved in an auto accident, your top priority is to ensure the liable party can pay for your injuries and losses. Although most claims are handled by insurance companies, sometimes it's necessary to sue the defendant directly, so it's important to check whether the person can pay before you initiate a lawsuit. Here are three things you can do to see if a defendant has enough assets to pay a court judgment.
Search for Legal History
Both civil and criminal cases are a matter of public record, so case information is generally accessible to anyone. Thus, one way to uncover defendant assets is to search court records for past (or current) proceedings. In particular, you want to look for cases where the defendant was required to disclose details about income and assets.
For instance, petitioners must list their assets and liabilities when they file for bankruptcy. If the defendant has declared bankruptcy previously, you can get a copy of the paperwork, which will show you how much money the defendant had and what they owned at the time. Although the information may be outdated, it can be the starting point for locating other stuff that may be used to satisfy an accident claim.
Do a Property Search
Property records are another great resource that's publicly available. Depending on the state you're in, you can access information about the homes and vehicles owned by a particular individual or at least the ones registered in their names.
These records are particularly valuable because not only can you find out what the defendant owns, but you may uncover the person's attempt to hide assets from your lawsuit and take appropriate action.
It's not unusual for a defendant to transfer property into a different person's name to prevent it from being confiscated, for example. If you notice the defendant recently "sold" property to a family member or friend, it could indicate an intent to hide assets. With the proper evidence, you could force the recipient to give the item back to the defendant so that it can be used to pay your court judgment.
A lot of states are making these records searchable online. However, you may have to go directly to the agency (e.g., tax assessor's office) to find what you're looking for. Be aware that there may be a cost involved, so be sure to contact the office beforehand so you can be prepared.
Call for an Asset Hearing
A third way you can find out what the defendant owns is to simply ask the person directly. Specifically, you can call an asset hearing where the defendant would be required to answer questions about his or her finances under oath.
There are a couple of benefits to this type of hearing. First, the defendant is required to attend. If the person fails to show, he or she would face legal consequences such as being arrested or fined. Second, some states let plaintiffs and defendants request the hearing be held in other places besides the courthouse, which can make it easier for all parties to attend.
However, one of the main drawbacks of an asset hearing is it requires the defendant to be completely honest in his or her answers. Lying under oath is considered perjury and a prosecutable offense, but that won't stop a motivated individual from doing it. So, there's a chance that whatever the defendant tells you may be half-truths or outright lies, and you need to take that into consideration before acting on anything the person says.
Tracking down a defendant's assets can be a time-consuming and tricky process, but it's important to do this to avoid wasting your money on a lawsuit that won't get you what you want. For help with this or other aspects of your accident case, contact a local car accident attorney.