If one of your creditors sues you, never ignore the summons. If you're silent, your creditor will probably win by default. Answering the summons is the only way to defend yourself.
Defend or Lose
If you don't file an answer to the complaint, you lose the case. The creditor is then the only one talking to the judge, who will usually deliver a verdict in the creditor's favor. If the court rules against you, it won't matter that you can't pay or even that you don't owe the money. Once your creditor has the court judgment, he may be able to collect by garnishing your wages or tapping your bank account.
The summons tells you how long you have to file an answer — 20 days, for example. If you file but miss the deadline, it's the same as if you didn't file at all.
If you can't attend the scheduled hearing, or if the summons isn't delivered far enough ahead of time, contact the court. File the appropriate paperwork to request the court postpone the hearing.
If you owe what the plaintiff claims you do, consider settling up before the court hearing. That way your creditor can't add the costs of the hearing to your bill. If you can't afford to settle and don't have any legal defense, the Nolo legal website says, that's one time it may be better to default. That way you don't have to spend money and time on a futile effort.
Drafting a Response
Along with the summons, you receive a complaint detailing the creditor's charges against you. Read this so you know exactly what the creditor is going to tell the judge. The details shape your answer. If the creditor charges you with a bill you don't owe or claims the wrong amount, contest the allegations. If the bill is valid but there's a legal weakness, you may have to concede the allegation and claim "affirmative defense."
To fight the case, you write an answer to the summons. The answer is a formal document that has to be drawn up according to state law. To do this without an attorney, you'll need to do some research. One way to get started is to go to the courthouse — the summons identifies the court — or visit the court website to review the proper paperwork used in other debt cases. This will give you an idea of the proper format.
When making out the answer you'll include:
• Your name and contact information.
• The name of the court.
• The name of the case, such as "Fred Creditor vs. Peter Plaintiff," and the case number. Both will be on the paperwork you received.
• A response to the allegations the creditor made against you. You can, for example, admit they're true or deny them.
• Affirmative defenses. Even if you admit the allegations, there may be reasons you shouldn't have to pay, such as the plaintiff using fraud or the debt being so old the statute of limitations has expired.
If answering the complaint seems like more than you can handle, the American Bar Association recommends looking for legal aid groups in your area that provide free or low-cost services. The bar's Find Legal Help tool allows you to make the search online.
Each state has small claims courts that settle cases quicker, cheaper and with simpler procedures than a regular court. These courts don't handle multimillion-dollar debts — the maximum amount ranges from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on state law. Plaintiffs and defendants can't bring in lawyers. Instead they have to settle things themselves.
You'll still receive a summons, but depending on state law, you may not have to file an answer. In some Nevada courts, for instance, you simply show up for the hearing. In Las Vegas, you have to file an answer. Contact the court and find out what you need to do.
As no lawyers are involved, you may have a better shot at negotiating with your creditor than in a regular court. Nevada's small-claims process often requires a mediation session before a full court hearing is scheduled.
- California Department of Consumer Affairs: If You're the Defendant ... Responding to the Lawsuit
- Nolo: Creditor Lawsuits: How the Case Begins
- Skiba Law Group: How to Draft an Answer to a Debt Collection Lawsuit in Three Steps
- America Bar Association: Find Legal Help
- Nolo: What Type of Cases Can Be Resolved in Small Claims Court?
- Civil Law Self-Help Center: Responding to a Small Claims Complaint