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I know that for relatively small amounts of money a civil lien will just sit on a house and there is nothing else the lienholder can do.

However, at some point of value, it must be possible to sieze the house. For example, if a homeowner has $200,000 in equity in their home and there is a judgement against them for $5,000, then at best the plaintiff could get a passive lien for $5,000 on the house. However, let's say instead that the judgement was for $190,000, then in that case the plaintiff could probably have the house seized and sold to satisfy the debt.

My question is if there are legal standards defining at what point a claim is so large in comparison to the value of an asset, that the asset can be seized, or is it just at the personal whim of the judge to decide it?

(Note I am not talking about a mortgage here, I am talking about when somebody gets sued and the winner of the lawsuit wants to start seizing the loser's stuff and selling it to satisfy the judgement.)

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  • Do you mean "a house that a person owns", or do you mean "a person's actual home"? – user6726 Nov 25 '17 at 17:04
  • @user6726 Assume the house is not exempt. – Cicero Nov 25 '17 at 17:11
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The amount of the judgment determines whether you go to Small Claims Court (under $2K), District Court (under $25K) or Superior Court (ch. 218 sect 19). Judgments and execution are covered in Ch. 235 of the General Laws of Massachusetts. Section 31 says that all property not exempted can be taken and sold. It is possible that the amount must be over $20 (sect 22 says "Executions issued by a district court for an amount as damages exceeding twenty dollars shall be so framed as to direct a levy upon the lands and tenements of the debtor", whatever that means). There is no apparent statutory limit to the effect that a debt must be greater than some number in order for real property to be liable to execution, nor is there a court rule in section VIII pertaining to execution with such an effect. The practical limit pertains to clearing existing liens, cost of the sale, legal costs, and the likelihood that the court will not order a sale, so seizure of real estate would be the worst choice compared to garnishment of wages of seizure of a car. But if a person has no other assets, non-exempt real property could be seized and sold.

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My question is if there are legal standards defining at what point a claim is so large in comparison to the value of an asset, that the asset can be seized, or is it just at the personal whim of the judge to decide it?

A judgment of any amount (with the possible $20 limitation set forth by @user6726) may be used to foreclose on real property unless the real property has less equity than the homestead exemption, which is governed in Massachusetts by the Homestead Protection Act.

But, suppose that someone has a small claims court judgment against you for $100 that is unpaid and you have a home worth $1,000,000 that you own free and clear (to avoid the complications of the Homestead Protection Act). Then, the $100 debt is sufficient to order the house sold to pay the debt. Most people in this situation, instead, voluntarily pay the debt, and if the proceeds at the sheriff's sale exceed the amount of the debt and related court costs, then the balance is returned to the home owner. But, there is no other minimum dollar amount and the judge has no discretion in the matter.

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