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.
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.
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.
|California||Responding to a Lawsuit|
|Florida||Florida Debtor’s Rights|
|Georgia||Georgia Legal Services Program|
|Illinois||Self-Help Law Centers in Illinois|
|Indiana||Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure|
| Mass- |
|Representing Yourself In a Civil Case: Things to Consider When Going to Court|
|Michigan||General Information About Responding to a Civil Complaint|
| New |
|A Guide To The New Jersey Civil Courts|
| New |
|How to Respond to a Summons and Complaint and Answering a Case|
| North |
|Legal Aid of North Carolina|
|Ohio||Instruction for Preparing and Filing an Answer to a Complaint|
| Pennsyl- |
|Forms For Filing Civil Complaints|
| South |
|South Carolina All Court Forms|
|Texas||Texas Law Help|
|Virginia||Legal Services Corp. of Virginia|
| Wash- |
|How Do I Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection? and Rule 4: Process|
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You must also mail a copy of your answer to each party’s attorney by using regular, First Class mail.
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 State Information 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.