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Handling Small Claims Court

Each state has its own small claims court system, and its own set of rules, procedures, and regulations. Be sure to research what’s required in your own state before either appearing in small claims court, or pursuing a case in small claims court.

In general, here are some explanations and guidelines that are true in most states (but be sure to check your own state’s requirements!). Your state may also have online materials or pamphlets you can pick up for more information.

What is small claims court?
It’s a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. The rules are simple and informal. The person who sues is called the plaintiff. The person who is sued is called the defendant. You are not allowed to have a lawyer represent you at the hearing in small claims court. But you can talk to a lawyer before or after court.

In small claims court you can sue someone, someone can sue you, you can have your case mediated, or you can actually go to court and appear before a judge.

A good idea is to observe an actual small claims court hearing. You’ll learn a lot just by watching the process, seeing how people act, and learning what is asked of them.

Who can use small claims court?
You can sue in small claims court if you are at least 18 years old, or if you are an emancipated child. If you are not mentally competent, or you are under 18 years old (and not emancipated), a judge will appoint a “guardian ad litem” to represent you in small claims court. A guardian ad litem is an adult appointed by the court to represent you ONLY in this specific case.

If you decide to sue:
Think first, though, if this is the right path for you. If you sue and win in court, the court cannot collect the money for you. Is the person you are suing able to pay, and will you be able to pursue the collection?  If you want to sue a neighbor because the neighbor behaves badly, will suing make the neighbor behave better, or will it worsen your living situation? Courts cannot force good behavior. Will the time and money it takes to go to court be worth the likely outcome?

Assuming you are prepared to sue, there are certain facts to gather, forms to fill out, and requests to make.

  • Correctly name the defendant: You must name the defendant exactly. If they have used different names, list those names you know as well, using “aka.” If you have more than one defendant, or if it involves a company, you must name all parties and companies involved.
  • You must (and should) ask for payment prior to going to court. Write what’s called a demand letter (your court or state may have an online resource to help you write this), and send it to the future defendant. In many cases this will resolve the situation, and you will get paid. If not, attach a copy of the demand letter to your court papers, and bring a copy with you to court.
  • Find out which specific small claims court is the correct court in which to file your claim. If you file your claim in the wrong court, the court may dismiss your case and you will have to refile in the correct court. If the time to file your case (the statute of limitations) has run out, you may end up losing your case. In general, you can file your claim in the court where the defendant lives or does business.  But there are some exceptions to this rule, so do your research on your court system’s website, or consult the court’s small claims advisor.
  • Fill out your court forms. Again, research your court’s website for guidance, or consult the court’s small claims advisor (at least ask the advisor to review your forms—your case will be dismissed if you have not provided the correct forms).
  • File your claim, and pay your filing fee. This fee can vary—depending on your state and county, and how much you are suing for. Take your forms and fee payment to the small claims clerk. They will review your paperwork, take your payment, and assign you a court date.
  • Keep track of your court date! If you miss it, your case will be dismissed.
  • Who will serve the defendant with their copy of the court papers and notice of the court date? Check with your small claims clerk, your court’s website, or your small claims advisor about how this happens.
  • Go to your court date prepared. Practice what you are going to say. Have all your court filing paperwork with you. Also bring any evidence you may need to present. Bring three copies of each document (check with your court). Bring any witnesses you have with you.
  • If you win, you will need to collect your judgement (the money awarded to you). The court will provide papers supporting this, but it will be up to you to pursue it. If you lose, you will need to pay your judgement.

If you are sued:
You still have options available to you:

  • You can settle your case before trial, coming to an agreement with the plaintiff.
  • You can try to prove you were sued in the wrong court.
  • You can go to trial and try to win.
  • You can sue the person suing you.
  • You can just agree that you owe the money and pay the plaintiff.
  • If you do nothing and do not go to your trial, you will “default” and the judge will enter a default judgment against you. The plaintiff will probably get what he or she is asking for plus any filing fees or other court costs related to the small claims case. If this happens, the plaintiff can legally take your money, wages, and property to pay the judgment.

There is, of course, much more to know about taking a case, or defending yourself in small claims court. Consult your state’s small claims court website for more detailed information.

And good luck!

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