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Served Summons & Complaint

I was recently served civil suit papers for a old debt I cannot afford to pay.

I was recently served civil suit papers for an old unsecured debt I cannot afford to pay. What should I do?

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Bill's Answer
(36 Votes) | Find Learn Save

  • A summons and complaint is an official notice of a lawsuit.
  • A defendant must respond to a summons or risk default judgment.
  • Consult with a lawyer in your state if you receive a summons.

Although I will provide general information that will help you understand how to resolve this matter, I urge you to consult with an attorney in your state who has experience with consumer rights issues. I will explain more about a summons and complaint in just a moment.

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Statute of Limitations

You mentioned this concerns an "old" debt, so I will discuss a legal concept called "statute of limitations." All states have a body of statutes in their codes of law called, "Limitations of Actions," commonly referred to as the statutes of limitations. The idea behind these laws is that we as a society have decided that we don’t want old debts hanging around forever — we want people and businesses to be able to move on with their lives without worrying about being sued.

The length of time a creditor has to sue you depends on your state of residence and the type of debt. For example, many states allow longer for creditors to file suit to collect on closed-ended consumer loans than on credit card debts. Most states give credit card issuers three to four years to file suit after default, but some states allow as many as 10 years.

Check out the Collection Laws and Statute of Limitations page to see a list of by state. If a creditor files a lawsuit after the allowed time, the court will usually throw the case out and not allow the creditor to file suit again (called dismissed with prejudice).

However, you must raise the issue of expired statute of limitations in a written response to the lawsuit, or else the court will not know that the statute of limitations has expired. The judge will not make the statute of limitations for you.

The periods vary from state to state. See the article Which Statute of Limitations Applies to Your Situation if you have a question about which state statute of limitations the court may follow.

Remember: The clock running out on a statute of limitations does not mean a creditor may not sue you (in most states). It means if a lawsuit is filed you should have an strong defense against the lawsuit if you raise the defense.

You must take action by either going to court or hiring an attorney to do so. Also, keep in mind that the passage of the SOL does not prevent a creditor from calling you to collect on the debt; it simply provides you a defense in court if the creditor files suit.

Summons and Complaint

The civil suit papers you refer to in your question are frequently called a Summons and Complaint. The summons, which should be the first page of the documents you received from the court, should state the time period in which you have to file a response to the complaint with your local courts. If you decide that you would like to respond to the complaint, the court clerk should be able to provide you with the necessary forms.

If you do not have a statute of limitations defense, I recommend you attempt to resolve this debt with the creditor or the creditor’s attorney before they take any further collection action. If you obtain a fairly sizable portion of the balance, the creditor may be willing to settle the debt.

For example, if you can offer 40% or 50% of the outstanding balance in a lump-sum payment, the creditor may be willing to forgive the remaining balance and dismiss the court case. Contact the creditor’s attorney to discuss settlement of the debt.

If you don't have a lump sum to settle the debt, the creditor may be willing to accept monthly payments to stop further collection activity, but will probably not dismiss the case against you. The creditor will want to obtain a judgment against you just in case you do not make your scheduled monthly payments. Again, contact the creditor’s attorney to discuss possible repayment plans.

If you do not resolve this matter, the creditor will likely obtain a judgment and proceed to attempt to collect on the judgment. Depending on the state you live in, judgment execution could include wage garnishment, bank levies, and property liens, and other actions. (See Collections Advice for more information about collections.)

I encourage you to consult with an attorney to discuss the implications of a judgment against you, and what is the best course of action to resolve the account. Even if you think you have a statute of limitations defense, your best course of action is to seek representation. (See How to Answer a Summons & Complaint for general information.)

You Cannot Afford an Attorney

If you cannot afford an attorney, contact your country bar association, and ask for information on reaching the organization in your area that provides legal aid to low- and no-income people.

Make an appointment with that organization, and bring all of the documentation you have regarding the debt and the summons and complaint to that meeting. If you think you have a statute of limitations defense, mention that to the attorney or paralegal in your meeting. Make a plan of action with the attorney or paralegal, and be sure to follow through with the plan.

For more information about debt, and for debt help resources, I encourage you to visit the debt help page.

I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.




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  • MQ
    Jun, 2014
    I was contacted today 6/9/14 about an unpaid verizon phone bill that is over 8 years old. I was told if i do not pay i will be served with a court summons. This bill was disputed by phone when originally received. I have not received any bill or phone calls about this in over 8 years. The bill is from NY and i now live in pa. I believe the statute of limitations has run out in both ny (6 years) and pa (4 years. Am i being scammed? Should i be worried?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Jun, 2014
      It sounds like a scam to me. Given the facts you listed, I would not pay a penny, were I in your shoes. Validate the debt, if you receive any written notice to pay. Answer any court summons you receive. If you are sued, argue the SOL as your defense. My guess is that they will not sue you, but were trying to intimidate you into paying.
      0 Votes

  • AK
    May, 2014
    I received a summons and complaint today here in NC and the court date has already passed. The summons was mailed to my old address and forwarded to me at my new address. It was mailed from the office of the plaintiff to me. What can I do now? I am sure a judgement was awarded to the plaintiff because I wasn't there but how could I be when I didn't get served? I have the envelope showing the forwarding information and shows where it was mailed from. Can they garnish my wages? The amount right now is $655 before any court costs. What do you recommend?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      May, 2014
      Save that envelope!

      Consult with a lawyer who has civil litigation or consumer law experience. Ask him or her about filing a motion to dismiss based on a defective service of process.

      You mentioned North Carolina. If you cannot afford a lawyer, contact Legal Aid of North Carolina, Law Help NC or another North Carolina pro bono program to find no-cost legal assistance.

      You asked about wage garnishment. Read the article North Carolina Collection Laws to learn your rights and liabilities.
      0 Votes

  • KC
    May, 2014
    I am in NC. I received a voice mail from a lady at HP Financial Firm stating that I had two hours to return her call, which she stated was attempt 1 of 3 to speak to me to arrange a summons delivery. I returned the call, likely more than two hours later, and another woman there told me the debt was opened in 2003, she could give me no end date to the contract (supposedly home phone service). She gave me an out of court amount to pay, and an amount that they would request in court (2.5x the original amount). She stated that the original company charged off the account in 2010. She was unable to answer why I'm just this year being contacted for this supposed debt. She also stated the statute of limitations is 50 years if they wanted it to be. I was told they would either garnish my wages or empty my bank account if I didn't pay. Other than speaking with an attorney, which I will do if I am served, what rights of any do I have in this situation?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      May, 2014
      The 50-year statute of limitations claim is baloney. Two reading assignments for you:
      • What you described sounds like a call from a scam artist. Read the article 4 Signs of a Collection Agency Scam, to learn how to recognize a scam, and eight steps you can take to respond to a scam artist.
      • You mentioned you live in North Carolina. Read the article North Carolina Collection Laws page to understand your rights and liabilities as a North Carolina resident.

      Be sure to ask the caller if his or her employer is licensed in North Carolina. If he or she says yes, check with the state to make sure. If it isn't licensed, then it has no legal right to collect a debt from a North Carolina resident.

      0 Votes

  • JW
    May, 2014
    I received a summons along with my wife for physical injury, property damage and loss wages due to an accident that happened to my wife a couple of years ago. My wife is in the process of filing for individual chapter 7. I cannot file because I had a discharge 4 years ago. From my research I think she can still add this lawsuit to her current filing.

    On my part, I have to answer and will deny everything because in CA, only the driver and/or the vehicle owner can be sued for this type of situation. I was neither the driver nor the owner of the car.

    My question is, the only answer form I found is the general form for contracts like credit card, etc. Can I use that answer form and explain why I deny the suit?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      May, 2014
      First, read the article Answer a Summons & Complaint to get a general overview of how to respond to a lawsuit.

      Second, you indicated you reside in California. See the Judicial Council of California Web page to find forms to complete to file and answer complaints in California. You may want to consider using form PLD-PI-003 "ANSWER-Personal Injury, Property Damage, Wrongful Death."

      Finally, if you cannot afford a lawyer, contact Law Help CA or another California pro bono program to find no-cost legal assistance.
      0 Votes

  • LM
    Feb, 2012
    Hi, I live in California and today I was served with a summons to appear on Tues 2/14 for a debt with Chase credit card. The debt defaulted on 12/2009 so the SOL has not yet expired. The debt is for $ 2168.37. Would a settlement offer for $400 be resonable? I canot afford any more since I work partime and go to school full time. Should I got to the court hearing and bring this up to the judge or I have better chances of the creditor accepting my settlement before going to court? I also plan to file for BK7 since I have several accounts on default.
    39 Votes