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The legal process of seizing property to ensure satisfaction of a judgment.

The document by which a court orders such a seizure may be called a writ of attachment or an order of attachment.

Originally, the main purpose of attachment was to coerce a defendant into appearing in court and answering the plaintiff's claim. The court's order pressured the sheriff to take the defendant's property into custody, depriving the individual of the right to use or sell it. If the defendant obstinately refused to appear, the property could be sold by the court to pay off any monetary judgment entered against him or her. Today, the process of attachment has two functions, as a jurisdictional predicate and as a provisional remedy.

Attachment of property within reach of the court's jurisdiction gives the court authority over the defendant to the extent of that property's value even if the court cannot reach the defendant personally. For example, a court must have some connection with the defendant in order to require that person to appear and defend himself or herself in an action before that court.

A variety of different facts are sufficient to give the court jurisdiction over the defendant's person; for example, the defendant's residence within the state, the defendant's commission of a wrongful act within the state, or the defendant's doing business within the state.

If none of these kinds of facts exist to give the court jurisdiction over the defendant's person, the court may nevertheless assert its authority over property that the defendant owns within the state. In such a case, the plaintiff cannot recover a monetary judgment for an amount larger than the value of the property nor can the individual reach the defendant's property outside the state, but this sort of jurisdiction, called jurisdiction in rem or quasi in rem, may be the best the plaintiff can get. Before the court can exercise jurisdiction over the property, the plaintiff must obtain a writ of attachment to bring it into custody of the court.

Attachment may also be a provisional remedy, that is, relief that temporarily offers the plaintiff some security while pursuing a final judgment in the lawsuit. For example, a plaintiff who has good reason to believe that the person he or she is suing is about to pack up and leave the state will want the court to prevent this until the plaintiff has a chance to win the action and collect on the judgment. The plaintiff can apply for an order of attachment that brings the property into the custody of the court and takes away the defendant's right to remove it or dispose of it.

Attachment is considered a very harsh remedy because it substantially interferes with the defendant's property rights before final resolution of the overall dispute. For this reason, there have been a number of challenges to the attachment procedures in different states, and the Supreme Court has established standards that are the least that due process requires. For example, for centuries attachment of a defendant's property was granted ex parte, that is, without first allowing the defendant to argue against it. The theory was that any defendant was likely to leave the state if he or she knew beforehand that his or her property was about to be attached. This collides with the individual's right to be free of interference with his or her rights unless the individual is given notice and an opportunity to be heard in the matter. States, therefore, now generally provide that notice must be given to the defendant before the seizure of property whenever practical, and the defendant must be given a hearing promptly after the seizure. Furthermore, a court cannot sanction a seizure that is made without a court order of attachment. To obtain the order, the plaintiff must swear to a set of facts that justify such a drastic interference with the defendant's property.

The process of attachment varies in detail from state to state, but it is not overly complicated. The plaintiff submits an application to the court describing the Cause of Action against the defendant and the grounds for seeking an attachment. The plaintiff may have to include documents or other evidence to support the claim that he or she will probably win the lawsuit, and the individual usually is required to make the application under oath. States generally require that the plaintiff post a bond or undertaking in an amount sufficient to secure payment of damages to the defendant if it turns out that the plaintiff was not in fact entitled to the attachment.

The court issues a writ of attachment directing the sheriff or other law enforcement officer to serve a copy of the order on the defendant and to seize property equal in value to the sum specified in the writ. This is called a levy of attachment. The defendant then has a right to challenge the seizure or to post bond for the release of the property, in effect substituting the bond for the property in the court's custody. The order of attachment is effective only for a limited period, the time necessary to wind up the lawsuit between plaintiff and defendant or a specified period intended to permit resolution of the controversy. Provisions are usually made for special circumstances or extreme hardship.

Not every kind of property owned by the defendant is subject to attachment. The laws of a state may provide exemptions for certain household items, clothing, tools, and other essentials. The defendant's salary may be subject to attachment, but a certain amount is exempt in order to allow for personal support or for family support. Property belonging to the defendant but in the hands of someone else, such as salary owed or a debt not yet paid, may also be seized, but this procedure is usually called Garnishment rather than attachment.

Courts always have the discretion to exempt more property than that specified in a statute or to deny the attachment altogether under the proper circumstances. This may be done, for example, when the court believes that the property sought to be attached is worth much more than any judgment the plaintiff could hope to win, or where the property is an ongoing business that would be destroyed by attachment.

Further readings

Siegel, Lee S., and Charlotte Biblow. 2000."Attachment in Aid of Arbitration." Banking Law Journal 117 (September-October): 422–28.


Search and Seizure.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. the seizing of money or property prior to getting a judgment in court, in contemplation that the plaintiff will win at trial (usually in simple cases of money owed) and will require the money or property to cover (satisfy) the judgment. The Supreme Court has ruled that an attachment may be made only after a hearing before a judge in which both sides can argue the danger that the party being sued (defendant) is likely to leave the area or otherwise avoid probable payment. A temporary attachment may be allowed by court order without both parties being present based on a declaration of the party wanting the attachment that there is clear proof that the defendant is going to flee. The court must also require a bond to cover damages to the defendant if the attachment proves not to have been necessary. Before the hearing requirement, pre-judgment attachments were common in which automobiles and bank accounts were held by the sheriff merely upon the person seeking the attachment posting a bond and the plaintiff getting a writ of attachment. (See: writ of attachment)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


the legal process for the holding of a debtor's property until the debt is paid; attachment of earnings is a common remedy by which some or all of a person's wages or salary is withheld from him and used towards the discharge of a judgment debt.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

ATTACHMENT, crim. law, practice. A writ requiring a sheriff to apprehend a particular person, who has been guilty of. a contempt of court, and to bring the offender before the court. Tidd's Pr. Index, h.t.; Grab. Pr. 555.
     2. It may be awarded by the court upon a bare suggestion, though generally an oath stating what contempt has been committed is required, or on their own knowledge without indictment or information. An attachment may be issued against officers of the court for disobedience or contempt of their rules and orders, for disobedience of their process, and for disturbing them in their lawful proceedings. Bac. Ab. h.t. A. in the nature of a civil execution, and it was therefore held it could not be executed on Sunday; 1 T. R. 266; Cowper, 394; Willes, R. 292, note (b); yet, in. one case, it was decided, that it was so far criminal, that it could not be granted in England on the affirmation of a Quaker. Stra. 441. See 5 Halst. 63; 1 Cowen, 121, note; Bac. Ab. h.t.

ATTACHMENT, remedies. A writ issued by a court of competent jurisdiction, commanding the sheriff or other proper officer to seize any property; credit, or right, belonging to the defendant, in whatever hands the same may be found, to satisfy the demand which the plaintiff has against him.
     2. This writ always issues before judgment, and is intended to compel an appearance in this respect it differs from an execution. In some of the states this process can be issued only against absconding debtors, or those who conceal themselves; in others it is issued in the first instance, so that the property attached may respond to the exigency of the writ, and satisfy the judgment.
     3. There are two kinds of attachment in Pennsylvania, the foreign attachment, and the domestic attachment. l. The foreign attachment is a mode of proceeding by a creditor against the property of his debtor, when the debtor is out of the jurisdiction of the state, and is not an inhabitant of the same. The object of this process is in the first instance to compel an appearance by the debtor, although his property may even eventually be made liable to the amount of the plaintiff Is claim. It will be proper to consider, 1. by whom it be issued; 2. against what property 3. mode of proceeding. 1. The plaintiff must be a creditor of the defendant; the claim of the plaintiff need not, however, be technically a debt, but it may be such on which an action of assumpsit would lie but an attachment will not lie for a demand which arises ex delicto; or when special bail would not be regularly required. Serg. on Att. 51. 2. The writ of attachment may be issued against the real and personal estate of any person not residing within the commonwealth, and not being within the county in which such writ may issue, at the time. of the issuing thereof. And proceedings may be had against persons convicted of crime, and sentenced to imprisonment. 3. The writ of attachment is in general terms, not specifying in the body of it the name of the garnishee, or the property to be attached, but commanding the officer to attach the defendant, by all and singular his goods and chattels, in whose hands or possession soever the same may be found in his bailiwick, so that he be and appear before the court at a certain time to answer, &c. The foreign attachment is issued solely for the benefit of the plaintiff.
     4.-2. The domestic attachment is issued by the court of common pleas of the county in which any debtor, being an inhabitant of the commonwealth, may reside; if such debtor shall have absconded from the place of his usual abode within the same, or shall have remained absent from the commonwealth, or shall have confined himself to his own house, or concealed himself elsewhere, with a design, in either case, to defraud his creditors. It is issued on an oath or affirmation, previously made by a creditor of such person, or by some one on his behalf, of the truth of his debt, and of the facts upon which the attachment may be founded. Any other creditor of such person, upon affidavit of his debt as aforesaid, may suggest his name upon the record, and thereupon such creditor may proceed to prosecute his said writ, if the person suing the same shall refuse or neglect to proceed thereon, or if he fail to establish his right to prosecute the same, as a creditor of the defendant. The property attached is vested in trustees to be appointed by the court, who are, after giving six months public notice of their appointment, to distribute the assets attached among the creditors under certain regulations prescribed by the act of assembly. Perishable goods way be sold under an order of the court, both under a foreign and domestic attachment. Vide Serg. on Attachments Whart. Dig. title Attachment.
     5. By the code of practice of Louisiana, an attachment in the hands of third person is declared to be a mandate which a creditor obtains from a competent officer, commanding the seizure of any property, credit or right, belonging to his debtor, in whatever hands they may be found, to satisfy the demand which he intends to bring against him. A creditor may obtain such attachment of the property of his debtor, in the following cases. 1. When such debtor is about permanently leaving the state, without there being a possibility, in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, of obtaining or executing judgment against him previous to, his departure; or when such debtor has already left the state never again to return. 2. When such debtor resides out of the state. 3. When he conceals himself to avoid being cited or forced to answer to the suit intended to be brought against him. Articles 239, 240.
     6. By the local laws of some of the New England states, and particularly of the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, personal property and real estate may be attached upon mesne process to respond the exigency of the writ, and satisfy the judgment. In such cases it is the common practice for the officer to bail the goods attached, to some person, who is usually a friend of the debtor, upon an express or implied agreement on his part, to have them forthcoming on demand, or in time to respond the judgment, when the execution thereon shall be issued. Story on Bailm. Sec. 124. As to the rights and duties of the officer or bailor in such cases, and as to the rights and duties of the bailee, who is commonly called the receiptor, see 2 Mass. 514; 9 Mass. 112 11 Mass. 211; 6 Johns. R. 195 9 Mass. 104, 265; 10 Mass. 125 15 Mass. 310; 1 Pick. R. 232, 389. See Metc. & Perk. Dig. tit. Absent and Absconding Debtors.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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