Help! The Sheriff is Coming to Take My Property!

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

“Actually, you probably don’t need too much help, but let’s talk for a second”, is what I usually say. I have this telephone or email conversation all the time. In fact, I had it today.

What I’m talking about is the standard form letter which our South Carolina sheriffs departments send out when a creditor obtains a judgment against someone and asks the sheriff to collect the judgment. This is commonly known as an “execution letter.” It is a form letter in my county and the same very nice lieutenant has been signing them for longer than I’ve lived here. But, what is this letter? Why did you get it and what does it mean?

Everyone’s heard of judgments. Telephone collection banks from India tell you that they are going to get one against you all the time. This conjures up scary images of Woody Guthrie dust bowls with homeless farmers roaming the dusty roads and, of course, when you get a judgement, you imagine that you’re that homeless farmer about to start ridin’ the rails. People cry in my office when they bring them in.


Unless you really do have something to lose, which is rare, you can relax. And if you you do have something to lose, I probably can help you, so come on in.

Think of it this way. You have two people. They argue about money. He said. She said. Until a judge says one of them is right, it means nothing. A lawsuit is a way to get your dispute heard by a judge. The result of that lawsuit is a judgment. It forever ends the dispute, and the judge then says that the debtor owes money to the creditor. A judgment is filed at the courthouse in the county where the lawsuit was brought. It collects interest at 7.25% a year. It is a lien on any real estate in any county in which it’s filed. It can be moved from county to county, state to state, and country to country. But a judgment is nothing more than a tool. It is a tool used to collect money. You collect money by collecting or taking assets and having the sheriff sell them in order to give the money to the winner of the lawsuit.

When a creditor gets his judgment, his attorney sends a form letter to the sheriff asking him to collect the judgment. He also sends that scary letter to you. It does, in fact, say that if you do not pay the sum of “$x” within 5 days then he will sell your assets in order to satisfy the debt (or something like that). What it does not say is that he can only sell your non-exempt assets, but that is all he can do. And, the fact of the matter is, most people do not own anything that is non-exempt.

An exemption is a dollar amount, of a certain type of asset, which a debtor (a person who owes money or someone with a judgment against him) gets to keep. Think of it this way. There are exemptions for all kinds of assets. But, in South Carolina a debtor can exempt $56,350 of equity in his residence. That means that if you own a house, the sheriff has to (1) sell your house at auction; (2) get enough money to pay off the mortgage and the sheriff’s cost of the sale; (3) get enough money to pay you your exemption amount ($56,350); (4) get enough money to pay anyone else who owns part of the house, like your wife, her share; and (5) still have some money left over to pay money to the creditor for his judgment. As you can see, that ain’t happening for most debtors who are getting sued.

This is a big protection, and most folks’ stuff isn’t worth more than what they can protect. If you are being sued, take the complaint to an attorney immediately, as you must respond to it in a very short time or a judgment is obtained. Even if it is too late, take it to an attorney so that he or she can tell you what is exempt and whether you “really” have an emergency. Even if you have a judgment lien on your house, a bankruptcy attorney can probably strip it from your house under certain circumstances.

The bottom line here this: Don’t panic! Just because you get a letter from the Sheriff’s department doesn’t mean you’ll lose your property. 

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You can call me Showell. I'm a bankruptcy lawyer in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I've practiced law since 1986, when I filed my 1st bankruptcy. Since then I've filed about 4000 cases for people and businesses. I don’t represent or have much sympathy for creditors, as most of my clients sought help from creditors already and the creditors either were not helpful, or downright rude. My philosophy, as a third generation lawyer and former Boy Scout, is based on my having been taught to be honest, helpful, respectful, courteous and kind, because you never know the problems people have from looking at them. Most folks are honest and good, but have hit brick walls and the cards definitely are stacked against the “little guy.” I’ll tell you your options at a free consultation and take fee payments for as long as you need. I also try to get folks to relax about their problems, as life is just too short to let worrying about finances ruin it. You come up with a plan and work through it; then you move on. I’ve lived in Rock Hill since 1989 and file bankruptcies in the District of South Carolina and the Western District of North Carolina (Charlotte) where bankruptcy has been 95% of my practice since 1993 and 100% since 2000. I was educated mostly in the North Carolina public schools, although I did go to boarding school at Virginia Episcopal School for 11th and 12th grade because my father went there in 12th grade and because, well, I enjoyed an active social life in 10th grade. In 1982 I got a BS in Industrial Relations from UNC- Chapel Hill, focusing on economics and psychology. I also cooked in restaurants, and I still believe it was the best job I’ve ever had. In 1986 I graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law and practiced in Rocky Mount, NC for 3 years in a three-man firm doing wills, real estate, incorporations, bankruptcies, criminal matters, and divorces. In 1989 I moved to Rock Hill to work for W. Ryan Hovis, a chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee. There I started regularly handling debtor bankruptcies, and reviewing files and handling litigation and meetings of creditors for the trustee. Since 1993 I’ve had my own law firm doing mostly bankruptcy. My professional involvement includes: teaching bankruptcy at South Carolina Bar’s Law School for NonLawyers (see website:; testifying at South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee and working to change South Carolina exemptions law; lobbying U.S. Congress for favorable bankruptcy laws; working on South Carolina Bankruptcy Law Association board and seminar committee; and as National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys’ South Carolina Chair. I also draw cartoons for an SC Bar magazine. On the civic side, I am a deacon at Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church, and was chair of the Fellowship Committee. I was Chair of the Ann Barron Child Development Center Board, PTO President at my daughters’ school, on the Board of the Catawba Regional Mental Health Center, and Treasurer of the Jaycees. I have been on two medical mission trips to Honduras. My lovely daughters are 22 and 17, and I have one small black pug, two aquariums and two cats. Just because my aquarium at work needs cleaning does not mean I will neglect your file. It’s quite the opposite: the dirtier the aquarium, the busier I am. Hopefully, the dog will not bark at the office. The cats stay home. It's their domain. Feel free to contact me with questions or to make a free appointment: Phone: 803-329-6115 Email: [email protected] Website:


  1. I agree. DO NOT PANIC if you get an execution letter from the Sheriff. It doesn’t mean that you’ll lose your property right away. What people can do in this kind of situation is consult a good lawyer so they’ll know what to do.

  2. shemi says:

    In South Carolina, homestead exemption is only automatic if you file for bankruptcy. You have to be 65 years of age the preceding tax year to quality, disabled, or blind . My spouse would like to use age which he can’t until next year. He turned 65 this year, filed for homestead exemption, and was told it would be active December 31 of next year. Also, Is there any other exemption to use until your homestead exemption kicks in?

  3. You are confusing your property tax “homestead exemption” with your Title 15 homestead exemption. Title 15 exemptions (commonly called “homestead exemptions,” particularly with 15-41-30(A)(1) which provides an exemption in the debtor’s homestead, are totally different. Title 15 exemptions (and other similar exemptions in the statute) protect property from being taken by a creditor to satisfy a debt. And no, the homestead is not “automatic if you file bankruptcy.” Title 15 exemptions apply whether or not you file bankruptcy. Hope this helps.

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