Have an out-of-state judgment? Here’s what you need to know

How to domesticate a foreign judgment in Tennessee

In law, as in life, situations may become more complicated than anticipated. For example, you may have received a court judgment in your favor regarding a debt or contract damages. You may be owed money.

Unfortunately winning a judgment and collecting it are two separate issues.

It can be especially difficult to collect on a judgment if the losing party lives in another state or moves locations. In Tennessee, as in all states, courts will not automatically enforce judgments from foreign jurisdictions.

But you do have legal options. The U.S. Constitution provides that courts will recognize the validity of other state judgments, under Article 4, Section 1, by giving other jurisdictions "full faith and credit." In other words, Tennessee courts must respect the legal decisions issued by other U.S. courts regarding judgments. In order to accomplish this in practice, however, you must "domesticate" the judgment in a Tennessee court.

Domesticating a foreign judgment

Domesticating a foreign judgment simply means having a court in Tennessee formally recognize an out-of-state judgment. There are two options to domesticate a foreign judgment in Tennessee. They are:

  • File a new lawsuit in the appropriate court and prove the validity of the previous judgment (there is no need to prove the merits of your case again); or
  • Register the foreign judgment in a Tennessee court under the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act.

The latter method is usually the quickest and least costly method. Under Tennessee law, a copy of any foreign judgment "authenticated in accordance with the acts of congress" may be filed in Tennessee courts. Once properly domesticated, the out-of-state judgment can be enforced by state courts like any other valid judgment.

There are some limits to domesticating foreign judgments. However, these limits typically involve procedural defects. The domesticated judgment is subject to the same procedures, defenses and proceedings for reopening, vacating, or staying any other judgment. However, Tennessee courts will not re-examine the underlying legal or factual merits of the original judgment.

Enforcing judgments

If you are able to domesticate a foreign judgment in a Tennessee court, there are significant tools available to you to collect on that judgment. These include wage garnishments, liens, forced sale of assets and properties, and other methods.

But the first step is to domesticate the foreign judgment. For help with that process, contact the Law Office of Timothy H. Nichols, PLLC.