All too often clients call in a panic when they learn that someone who has a judgment against them is attempting to enforce the judgment or debt by placing a lien on their property, freezing their bank accounts, or garnishing their wages. The client usually has a host of reasons why the plaintiff's judgment is not valid and wants an attorney to dispute the plaintiff's claims. When asked whether the client defended the lawsuit initially, typical responses include "well, I did get some papers in the mail, but I ignored them" or "I didn't think anything would happen, but I want to defend it now." Unfortunately, "now" is usually too late.
In California, a lawsuit is commenced when a person (called a "plaintiff") files a "complaint" against another person (called a "defendant"). The complaint is then formally served on the defendant, giving the defendant notice of the lawsuit and requiring that the defendant respond within a specific time frame, usually 30 days from the date of service. If the defendant fails to respond within the required time frame, the plaintiff will request the court enter the "default" of the defendant and award a judgment meaning the court officially recognizes that the defendant has failed to respond to the lawsuit and enters judgment based on that failure. The plaintiff will often be awarded everything requested and the defendant will have lost the case without ever having his day in court.
Once judgment is entered, the plaintiff will proceed with collection efforts. It is usually these proceedings that prompt the defendant to finally take action, albeit way too late.
In some cases, there are motions that can be filed (generally only within six months of the date of the judgment) requesting that the court vacate or set aside the judgment for specified reasons, including the "surprise, inadvertence, or excusable neglect" of the defendant. If granted, the case may be reopened, but the court will likely force the defendant to pay plaintiff's costs of obtaining the default and the default judgment. In many instances, however, the motion to vacate will not be granted and the defendant will be left having to satisfy the judgment.
Needless to say, if you are served with a complaint, do not ignore it immediately consult an attorney.