- 10 min read
- Receive a summons & complaint? You need to file an answer!
- Learn your local court's rules, so you respond properly and in a timely manner
- Answer each allegation in the complaint
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.
Get Complete Information
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.
Beware of bogus letters
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
|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- achusetts||Representing Yourself In a Civil Case: Things to Consider When Going to Court|
|Michigan||General Information About Responding to a Civil Complaint|
|New Jersey||A Guide To The New Jersey Civil Courts|
|New York||How to Respond to a Summons and Complaint and Answering a Case|
|North Carolina||Legal Aid of North Carolina|
|Ohio||Instruction for Preparing and Filing an Answer to a Complaint|
|Pennsyl- vania||Forms For Filing Civil Complaints|
|South Carolina||South Carolina All Court Forms|
|Texas||Texas Law Help|
|Virginia||Legal Services Corp. of Virginia|
|Wash- ington||How Do I Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection? and Rule 4: Process|
- 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.
- 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.
- Send a copy of your answer to the plaintiff’s attorney.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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 statute of limitations 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.
Follow the Curt's Instructions
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.
Bring the Right Paperwork
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.
Don't Make a Mistake When Mailing Your Answer
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 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.
If you are struggling with debt, you are not alone. According to the NY Federal Reserve total household debt as of Quarter Q4 2022 was $16.91 trillion. Student loan debt was $1.60 trillion and credit card debt was $0.99 trillion.
According to data gathered by Urban.org from a sample of credit reports, about 26% of people in the US have some kind of debt in collections. The median debt in collections is $1,739. Student loans and auto loans are common types of debt. Of people holding student debt, approximately 8% had student loans in collections. The national Auto/Retail debt delinquency rate was 4%.
The amount of debt and debt in collections vary by state. For example, in California, 21% have any kind of debt in collections and the median debt in collections is $1824. Medical debt is common and 8% have that in collections. The median medical debt in collections is $712.
While many households can comfortably pay off their debt, it is clear that many people are struggling with debt. Make sure that you analyze your situation and find the best debt payoff solutions to match your situation.
I just got served with summons. There is no Court File No. on the summons. To whom do I send the written response to as the district court listed on the summons has no record of me being sued? All I have is the address of the law office which sent me the summons. If I send them the answer without the courts getting a copy am I setting myself up to lose?
Michael, I am not a lawyer so I can't legal advice. Here are a few thoughts, shared with the understanding that it is not legal advice.
Something doesn't add up. A summons is issued to notify you are being sued. If they are sending you paperwork trying to trick you into paying with a false summons, that would be egregious conduct.
Either see if you can speak to a court clerk or seek a consultation with an attorney that handles violations of the FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act). They don't charge you a fee but will take the case if they feel they can win and get money from a creditor harassing you. Do a search online for FDCPA attorney and the name of the city in which you live. Please report back on how things go for you!
I signed a payment agreement and consent judgement then received a letter saying it had been denied because I hadn't filed my answer to consent. I mailed the answer so will they refile the consent judgement?
Mary, there is no guarantee that they will accept it. They could choose to pursue collections with a wage garnishment, instead. I recommend that you contact the court clerk and the creditor ASAP. Explain that you mailed th paperwork. If they are willing to let you submit the paperwork again, send it registered mail or some way that provides proof the item was mailed to the proper party and that will also provide you confirmation that the mail was received.
I mailed the answer via certified mail. I had until March 28th to send it. However the creditor submitted the consent judgement form before the answer was received. So will the creditor have to refile the consent judgement?
Mary, I am not a lawyer. Here is my understanding, but please don't consider it legal advice.
If you followed the instructions and can prove it, but the creditor jumped the gun, then the agreement should be enforceable. Try speaking with the court clerk asking for some guidance and see if the clerk agrees that you followed the instructions correctly.
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.
Hello, I entered a production collaboration agreement with a gentleman and we signed a contract (the contract indemnifies me from all reasonable production costs) The man asked me for money to help begin production (I paid and have receipts) and also subcontracted me for what which cost me a hefty some. I did the work and delivered it to him on the deadline. He later on failed to pay me and live up to the promises he made when contracting him. My lawyers assessed the damages and I issued a summons to him via email. The law in my jurisdiction dictates that he respond within 14 days. He received the notice to sue but has been silent ever since. I understand that he is typically mandated to give an official answer but he is a very shady character. What do it do if he declines to respond, refuses to pay and or tries to ignore the case? He has evaded answering my calls when I called to demand for what he owes me before.
Nicole, I am not a lawyer and can't give legal advice, so please do not consider anything I say to be legal advice.
I am slightly confused. You hired lawyers and initiated a lawsuit. Who advised you to serve the summons via email. That sounds suspect to me. Are you sure that is allowed in your area of jurisdiction? What do your lawyers say?
I am also confused by the timeline. Was a lawsuit filed? Normally, when a civil suit is filed and the summons is served properly, the suit continues whether or not the respondent submits his or her answers to the summons. Avoidance is not a successful technique for dealing with a summons or complaint. Instead, ignoring the summons leads to the inability to present a defense to the suit and a default judgment is awarded to the plaintiff. If you did not follow the rules for serving process then you are setting yourself up for problems.
If a judgment is issued, avoidance, again, is not the best strategy for a judgment-debtor. The means available to judgment-creditor are determined by a state's collection laws. They generally include wage garnishment, attaching the bank account, and coming after non-exempt assets. This doesn't guarantee collecting; there are many parties who win a lawsuit and don't ever collect the money owed or get bits and pieces at great effort. A famous example is the parents of Ron Goldman who won a civil judgment against O.J. Simpson, but had a very difficult time collecting money, as Florida collection laws protected the value of Simpson's prmary residence and his pension.
Reviewing the service of processs by email with your lawyers ASAP is the first step, imo. Make sure you follow the clearly outlined requirements so you can sue the party properly. From what you stated, collecting is going to be difficult, so you should discuss this with your lawyers, too, weighing the costs of suing and the likelihood of collecting from a person who has a history of misrepresenting himself to you and taking advantage of you.
Please report back on how things go.