Receiving a summons for your outstanding debts can be an alarming experience, especially if it’s your first time to get one. What do you do so you won’t get sued? What is the right way to send an answer? While the obvious move is to consult with a lawyer right away, that is not always an option for many people.
If you are being sued for your unpaid debts, chances are, the reason why you can’t pay them is because you’re short on cash. Therefore, you probably can’t afford an attorney to deal with the complaint. That does not mean, however, that you cannot file an answer yourself. In this article, we will discuss how to answer a summons without an attorney.
Step-by-Step Guide on How to Respond to a Summons For Debt
Even during a crisis, debt collectors do not stop from suing and trying to collect money from borrowers. So, if you have been delinquent in making payments on your outstanding debts, there is a big chance that the creditor will sue you to recoup the money.
For example, if you have not paid your credit card and you’re behind by at least 180 days on payment, the credit card company will file a “Complaint”, which is basically the lawsuit, against you. The creditor is called the “plaintiff” in the legal documents. The complaint will contain all the allegations against you. These allegations have not been proven yet so they may not necessarily be true.
Once a complaint is filed, you will then receive the summons from the court. The “Summons” is the legal document that notifies you about the complaint and it will indicate until when you can submit your response to the court. Your response document is called the “Answer” to the complaint. This is your opportunity to inform the court whether what the creditor is claiming is true or false.
How do you go about this process? This guide will show you how to answer a summons for credit card debt or any other debt. Take note that this is generally how the process works in the United States but depending on the state you live in or where the complaint was filed, some details may be different.
Step 1: Check How Long You Have to Respond to the Complaint
The very first thing that you need to check is how much time you have to respond to the Summons. This is important so that you can plan your steps accordingly. Most states allow for 20 days but depending on the state, this can range from 14 to 40 days. This will be indicated in your Summons document.
What you do not want to happen is to run out of time to respond, which could result in a Default Judgment where the ruling will favor the creditor and you would have to pay the entire debt amount, even if there were mistakes or inaccuracies.
Step 2: Review the Complaint and Check Your Own Financial Records
The Summons will state that you have the right to disagree with the allegations in the Complaint by responding in writing. In order for you to do this, you have to review your financial records to see whether these claims are true or not.
Do you owe the creditor the debt indicated in the complaint? Is the debt amount correct? Are you the person responsible for the debt? The details you need to check will depend on what the allegations are. The allegations will be broken down in different statements or paragraphs, which will often be numbered. You have to respond to these allegations one by one.
You have three options in responding:
- Admit – This means that this statement is true. When you admit to one statement, this does not mean that you are admitting everything. For example, you can agree that your name is what was written on the document or that the credit card number indicated is yours. If there is even a slight mistake or you are not sure 100%, do not admit to anything.
- Deny – Denying means disputing the allegation. For example, if after checking your records, you found that the amount that was written in the Complaint is inaccurate, you can deny that statement.
- Lack Knowledge – If you are not sure whether the statement is true or not because you do not have sufficient information, you do not understand what is being complained about or you are not familiar with the allegations, you can tick this option.
Once you have all of this information, you can then proceed to the next step.
Step 3: Get a Blank Answer Form from the Court's Clerk Office
Once you know what your answers are to the allegations (admit, deny, or lack knowledge), the next step is to get a blank answer form. You do not have to write an answer letter from scratch. These forms are often available in the court’s clerk office.
To know where you need to go, check the upper area of the Summons and the Complaint documents. You will find where the lawsuit was filed. You can then go to the clerk’s office of the courthouse to obtain this form. If you want to prepare this document in advance, you can call the clerk’s office to see whether this form is available online or whether you can get an electronic copy you can print out.
Step 4: Fill Out the Answer Form with Your Responses and Defenses
After getting the blank Answer form, carefully fill out your responses.
Note that the Answer forms may look different depending on the state the Complaint was filed. The following are examples of Answer forms in three different states. It is important to contact the courthouse clerk’s office yourself to obtain the correct and most updated version of the form.
In addition to admitting or denying the allegations, you must also raise “defenses”. The defenses are the reasons why you should win the case.
In most cases, the defenses are already indicated in the Answer form and you just need to check the appropriate boxes. At this point, it’s important to state or select all the defenses that you think could apply to your case because these could be the key on how to beat a debt collector in court.
Even if you admit to the allegations, you can use these defenses to still win the case. Some example of defenses are the following:
- You paid all of the debt
- Lack of personal jurisdiction meaning you were not served the Summons properly
- Identity theft or mistaken identity
- It has passed the statute of limitations, meaning the debt is too old
Step 5: File Your Answer Form at the Courthouse Clerk's Office
After completing the Answer form, you have to file the form with the clerk. You have to print the original document and make two copies of it. You may need to sign the document in front of the clerk so don’t sign it at home if you are preparing it in advance.
After signing the document, file it with the clerk and pay the corresponding filing fee. Again this may differ from state to state so you need to check ahead to make sure you have the money with you.
If you don’t have the money to pay, you can ask the court to allow you to file an answer without paying, however, you would need to file another form called Statement of Inability to Pay before you can file your answer. If you’re broke, it would be wise to file this early way before the deadline to allow you some breathing room in case this request will not be approved and you need to find funds to file your answer.
Step 6: Ask the Clerk to Stamp the Two Copies of Your Answer Form
After your Answer form is filed, the next step is to ask the clerk to stamp the two copies of your Answer document. One copy will stay with you and one copy should be sent to your creditor or your creditor’s law office.
You have to send this document yourself by registered mail because most courts will not send a copy of your Answer to the plaintiff. When the plaintiff is informed that you responded to the Complaint, they will know that they cannot proceed with a default judgment request.
If you send the Answer by mail, don’t forget to keep the receipt that you indeed mailed the document. This will serve as a proof that you responded to the Complaint and served the other party.
Step 7: Participate in Court Proceedings
After filing your Answer, ask the courthouse clerk what the next steps will be. You will typically be given a date to appear in court. If you are asked to appear in court, do not absent yourself to avoid a default judgment. There may also be instances where a mediation or settlement could take place. This means you and the creditor will try to settle or agree out of court to avoid a trial.
During the hearings, this is the time when you can argue your case and ask for evidence about the allegations. This is also the time when you can present the documents and proof that you have to dispute the allegations. While you have the right to represent yourself in court, it is advisable to consult with an attorney at this point to make sure you have all your bases covered and you’re following the correct procedure.
Step 8: Wait for the Court Ruling
The ruling is the decision of the judge regarding the complaint. The judge will either go in favor of the plaintiff or dismiss the lawsuit which is in your favor. If the plaintiff wins the lawsuit, that means you need to pay the amount determined by the judge. You can try to settle the debt with the creditor once again or as a last option, file for bankruptcy.
Important Reminders When Filing an Answer Form
When you receive a Summons because of your outstanding debt, keep these important reminders in mind.
1. Do not Ignore the Summons
Keep in mind that when you receive a Summons because a creditor filed a lawsuit, the statements in the Complaint document are still allegations and are not rulings yet. This means that you have an opportunity to contest them or settle with the creditor. Therefore, do not disregard the Summons out of fear or because you think that it will go away if you ignore it. You have to respond to the Summons by filing your Answer document within the time allowed by the courts.
Ignoring Summons will increase the chance of getting a default judgment. When this happens, the judge rules against you and you become liable for the debt amount even if you’re not certain if the figure is correct or valid.
2. Ask for Proof or Documentation of the Debt if You are Unsure that You Owe the Debt Amount
If you are uncertain or you lack knowledge about the debt, do not ignore it. Instead, either deny or state that you lack knowledge regarding the allegations of the plaintiff. When the lawsuit goes to court, ask the creditor to provide documentation or proof that you indeed owe the amount indicated in the Complaint.
If the other party cannot provide the required paperwork, the lawsuit could be dismissed. If you get a copy of the proof, you can further review it and assess what your next steps will be.
3. Renegotiate Your Debt with the Lender
If you indeed owe the amount indicated in the complaint and you’re sure that there were no mistakes, the best way to avoid the lawsuit is to settle with the creditor. Attempt to renegotiate a payment plan with the creditor. Some creditors are willing to reduce the interests and fees if you agree to start paying the debt.
However, bear in mind that even if you start renegotiating the debt, you still have to prepare an Answer to the Complaint and file it in court before the deadline just in case you don’t come to an agreement. This is very important because you might fall into the trap of thinking that you’re going to get a settlement only to find out that the time to Answer passed already which makes you vulnerable to a default judgment.