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How to Answer a Summons & Complaint

Updated: Sep 23, 2014

Highlights

  • Receive a summons & complaint? You need to file an answer!
  • Learn your local court's rules so that you respond in a timely manner
  • Answer each allegation in the complaint
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How to Respond to a Summons & Complaint

Maybe a process server handed you a summons. Or perhaps you received a complaint from a law firm. Or, a state court sent you a pair of documents called a summons and complaint. Regardless of what your state calls these documents, they all mean the same thing — someone has filed an action or lawsuit against you.

Now what? This article describes what general steps you need to take to respond to a complaint, and where to learn more about your state’s rules for responding to a complaint.

Important

This article contains general information about civil procedure, and is meant to help you under­stand the process of answering a complaint. Because this article contains general information, some of this may not apply to you, and there may be critical information about your state that is missing here. Learn what elements your state requires in an answer before you begin writing.

We start with the basics. The plaintiff is the person or organization that starts an action in civil court. A plaintiff’s opponent is the defendant. A summons and complaint is meant to be an opening salvo to give a defendant notice of the plaintiff’s lawsuit and to describe in general terms what the plaintiff wants.

Why is the document you received called a summons and complaint? The complaint explains why the plaintiff believes the defendant owes them money. The summons is the court document that requires the defendant to respond to the complaint and fixes a date when the court will hear the case. In some other states, as we hinted at earlier, the two documents are combined and are called simply a summons or a complaint.

Tip 1

Unscrupulous collection agents send consumers letters that look like court documents and use the words “Summons” or “Complaint” in their head­lines. These letters may be fakes designed to frighten consumers into paying a debt. Review your document carefully. It is probably a summons if:
      • A process server delivered it (not required in all states)
      • It says when you are scheduled to appear in court
      • It says which court will hear the case
      • The court clerk verifies the case is authentic
      • Your local court’s Web site lists the case
If, however, the document has a disclaimer saying it is an effort to collect a debt, then it is not a summons.

An answer is a written response explaining your side of the dispute. If you are being sued for collection of a debt, for example, the answer allows you to explain why you feel you do not owe all or part of the amount the plaintiff demands.

General Requirements For Answers

  1. Deliver your answer to the court within the number of days specified in the summons. In most cases, the clock starts ticking on the date you receive the documents but you should verify this with the clerk of the court or with a lawyer.
  2. If you have evidence showing that you do not owe the amount claimed, such as receipts, attach copies of those papers to every copy of your answer. Do not send originals — bring all original documents with you to the hearing.
  3. Send a copy of your answer to the plaintiff’s attorney.
  4. Each person being sued must file his or her own answer. This means if you are being sued with another person (say, your spouse) the other person must file their own answer.
  5. IMPORTANT: If you think you have a counterclaim against the plaintiff, contact a lawyer for information on how to file a counterclaim.

A counterclaim is a claim or contention that the plaintiff owes the defendant money or did something wrong to the defendant. Note that a counterclaim must arise out of the same set of facts that the plaintiff describes in the complaint.

General Guidelines to Answers

1. Write An Answer

The answer is a written response explaining why you think you do not owe the money that the person suing you is asking for. Note that the money demand will often include interest charges and/or attorney’s fees.

The answer may need to be formatted with particular fonts, point sizes, and margins. Learn your local court’s rules for filing answers. Some states have online forms you can complete, or in others, the court clerk will have blank forms.

At the top left of the form, clearly print or type the plaintiff’s name. In most cases, the credit card account name — i.e., Discover, Blooming­dale’s, Household Credit Services, etc. — as well as the defendant’s name (yours). At the top right of the form, print or type the case/file number listed on the summons.

In the space below the statement: “Comes now the defendant…” some courts expect the defendant to offer a brief explanation of their side of the story. If you are in a state where this is customary, defendants will usually deny the plaintiff has the right to demand legal fees be added to the account, or explain their attempts — perhaps through a debt settlement company — to resolve this account and the creditor or law firm’s unwillingness to accept any reasonable offers.

You must answer each allegation in the complaint. One of three is allowed, customarily:

  • Admit
  • Deny
  • Without Knowledge

It is proper and accurate to admit to your name, address, and other contact information if it is correct. If the plaintiff’s case relates to a credit card debt, you can “Admit in part” that you remember opening an account with the credit card issuer, and “Deny in part” any facts you do not recall, such as the account number or balance due. The plaintiff may make an allegation regarding your using a credit card to obtain goods and services. If the allegation is unclear or not backed by any supporting facts, then deny it stating the allegation is ambiguous or vague. A good rule of thumb to follow is, “When in doubt, deny.”

In some states, it is proper to notify the plaintiff of any affirmative defense you plan to use. These include

  • Passage of your state’s for this type of debt
  • Failure to state a cause of action. In other words, the complaint cites no violation of law.
  • Lack of privity. Applies when the plaintiff is not the original creditor. The plaintiff must show it is a successor in interest in this collection account.
  • Statute of frauds. In other words, no copy of contract is provided in the complaint.

Under the section “Certificate of Service”, print or type the date you mail the plaintiff their copy of the answer. If your state requires this, then have anyone other than yourself (or anyone named in the summons, and who is at least 18 years of age) sign on the line below the defendant’s signature and print his or her name and city and state of residence where indicated.

Tip 2

Ask the court clerk for a list of formatting require­ments for answers at your court. These vary even within a state, and some courts are very picky about the font, point size, and margins for court docu­ments. Failure to follow a court’s formatting require­ments may cause the clerk to reject your answer. Also, read other answers in your state and mimic the language used. Some courts expect plain English, and others rely on formal, almost arcane language and phrases.

2. Double-Check Your Answer

Once you complete your answer, check it to be sure it is complete, accurate, and truthful in all respects. Remove all instruction sheets. Double-check to make sure you followed the court’s formatting requirements. Signed and date the answer. You may need to sign your answer in front of a Notary Public.

3. Attach the Filing Fee

Include any filing fee your state or county requires. The filing fee amount is often found on the summons. Or, call the court clerk’s office to learn the fee.

4. Learn Where to File the Answer

The answer must be delivered to the address set forth in the summons. If you have any questions about where to file your answer, contact the court clerk’s office in the county where the case was filed against you.

Tip 3

Always bring an additional copy of each docu­ment you need to file. The clerk will keep and file the original. The copy will be stamped and returned to you as proof you filed your answer at that date and time.

5. Mail or Deliver the Answer to the Court

Some courts require hand-delivery of your answer to the clerk’s office. Others allow you to mail the answer to the clerk. Check with the court clerk for the correct method in your area. If you mail the answer, use Certified Mail, return receipt requested. Certified Mail provides you with a receipt card that can serve as proof of the date you mailed the answer to the court. Your local post office can tell you how to send a letter Certified Mail.

Tip 4

If you mail the answer, send an additional copy with your original form. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the court clerk to return the stamped copy of your answer to you for your records. Double-check your local court’s rules to learn if mailing an answer is allowed.

6. Mail Or Deliver the Answer to the Other Parties in the Case

You must also mail a copy of your answer to each party’s attorney by using regular, First Class mail.

  • Make enough copies of the answer so that you will have one for yourself, two copies to send to the court, and one for the plaintiff’s attorneys.
  • Mail or deliver one copy to each of the other parties’ attorneys.
  • Keep at least one copy of the answer for your own records.

Summary: Mark Your Calendar & Respond On Time

Defendants have a limited amount of time — 20 or 30 days — to respond to a complaint. Start work on your response early and well before the deadline so you have time to read and understand exactly how to respond to each allegation. You also want to give yourself time to type and format your answer according your court’s rules. The table in this page contains links to resources to help you learn the specifics about answering a complaint. If your state is not listed in this table, use a search engine to learn more about your state’s rules.

After you file your answer, mark your calendar for your hearing date. Attend the hearing! Plaintiffs expect defendants will not appear for their hearing. As a result of this expectation, the plaintiff’s lawyers are oftentimes unprepared to present a case to the court. Unprepared plaintiffs will ask the court to dismiss the case.

Consider consulting with a lawyer who has consumer law or civil litigation experience to help you with your case.

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  • CN
    May, 2014
    chris
    I got in a car accident in 2012. I rear-ended a vehicle and hit his tow hitch going about 10 mph or even less. My vehicle was the one damaged. At the time I didn't have insurance but he did. There was a police report made and it only said I rear-ended a vehicle with no other statements made. Now 2 years later in 2014 I get a call from his insurance saying I owe the person money. I tell him, "No I don't -- my car got damaged and not his." At the time of the accident the police didn't take any pictures. Then I get a email from his insurance company of a statement and pictures of the truck at an auto body shop I look at the pictures an the place I hit there was no damages. It shows a chip on the top of his tail light and some other areas. Then I get served a paper -- summary judgement. This is my first time being in this situation. Just how do I go about this? I was wondering if they can make a separate police report without me knowing?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      May, 2014
      Bill
      It is possible for the other owner to talk to the police to make a supplemental police report. The police are under no obligation to inform you of the supplemental report. You have the right to contact the police department and ask for a copy of the original and any supplemental reports.

      It is possible you received a summary judgment 2 years after the accident. Review the judgment and look for a case number to see if this was filed by the court. You may be able to find this case at the court's Web site.

      You seem surprised by the summary judgment. You should have received a summons to appear before the hearing. If you did not, then the plaintiff (the insurance company) did not follow your state's civil procedure rules and give you proper notice of the lawsuit. Consult with a lawyer in your state who has consumer law experience to learn if you can file a motion to vacate the judgement based on an improper service of process.
      0 Votes

  • BD
    May, 2014
    Brenton
    I have been trying for over 3 yrs to get a modification from PHH Bank. I don't even know who owns the mortgage, however it says US Bank as trustee, successor in interest to Wachovia bank as trustee for Merrill Lynch Mortgage. Their attorney served me a summons on the 6th of May. To answer complaint that I owed the mortgage and that I should respond within 30 days. Problem is I don't have money to get a lawyer. They never tried to give me a modification even though I am qualified, my house is upside down by $160,000. Lastly, the date of the summons says 4/3/14 but I was served 5/6/14 I am attempting to answer something by myself. Any suggestions? Oh one more thing; the loan was taken out in 2005 and was assigned from Ameriquest to Wachovia in 2006 and assigned again from Ameriquest to Wachovia in 2013. This does not make any sense.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      May, 2014
      Bill
      See the "State Information" table above for more information on how to respond to a summons and complaint.

      You indicated you reside in New York. Contact one of these New York pro bono programs to find no-cost legal services.
      0 Votes

  • PE
    May, 2014
    paul
    I received a summons from an attorney that is representing United Nissan, a dealership that claims i own them $1,500 for a down payment from March 2011. In the summons it states, "this is an attempt to collect a debt and any and all information obtained from this effort will be used for that purpose." There is no court date. It just said i need to pay a $71.00 filing fee and respond within 20 days after service. Is this legit?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      May, 2014
      Bill
      Impossible for us to say without seeing the notice you received. It is common for collection agents to gussy-up collection letters as summonses to appear, which is certainly unethical and could be illegal. However, that is not to say the notice you received is not a legitimate summons. Your safest course of action is to bring to the letter to a lawyer in your state who has civil litigation experience. He or she will be able to tell you if it's a collection letter or a summons by glancing at it.
      0 Votes