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Going to Court to Defend a Debt Collection Case


    This article explains how you can answer and defend a debt collection case.

    You can represent yourself in a debt collection case, or you can hire a lawyer to represent you. If you represent yourself, you must follow the same rules lawyers do. Not knowing the rules is not an excuse for not following them. If you need a lawyer and are low-income, you may qualify for free legal help. You can use the Find a Lawyer section on this page to look for legal help in your area.

    Who’s Who in a Debt Collection Case

    A creditor is a person or company to whom you owe money. When a creditor sues you, it is the plaintiff in the case. After there is a judgment saying you owe money, the creditor is also called a judgment creditor.

    A debt collector is someone who regularly collects debts owed to others. Collection agencies and collection lawyers are examples of debt collectors. Creditors sometimes sell debts to debt collectors rather than spend time and energy to collect debts. If a debt collector buys your debt, it becomes the creditor.

    If you owe someone money, you are a debtor. If you are sued, you are the defendant. After there is a judgment saying you owe money, you are also called the judgment debtor.

    A judgment is a court decision. It can be made by a judge, a jury, a magistrate or sometimes a Clerk of the Court. A money judgment says a person owes another person or company a set amount of money rather than property or services.

    Always Respond to Court Papers

    A lawsuit starts when the plaintiff files a complaint with the court. The complaint is the document that explains the dispute and asks for a judgment. The plaintiff uses it to tell the court and the defendant why the suit was filed and what it wants. The defendant then files an answer to begin participating in the case.

    You have 21 days to respond to a complaint you were personally handed. You have 28 days to respond to a complaint you got in the mail.

    You can use the Do-It-Yourself Civil Answer to create your Answer to a Complaint.

    How to Answer the Complaint

    A complaint consists of a number of paragraphs. Each paragraph should be numbered.

    When you answer a complaint, you respond to each paragraph one at a time.

    For each paragraph, you must say that you:

    • Agree with that paragraph;
    • Disagree with that paragraph; OR
    • Don’t know whether that paragraph is true.

    Follow these simple rules:

    • Do not agree with anything unless you know it is true.
    • Do not disagree with anything unless you know it is not true.
    • If you don’t know, state “I Don’t Know.”
    • If a paragraph makes more than one claim, do not admit it unless you know all the claims are true.
    • If you disagree with a paragraph, explain why you disagree with it. Briefly state what is wrong with the statement.

    Not Answering Equals Losing the Case

    If you do not respond within the time allowed, the court won’t require the creditor to prove anything. The creditor will win by default. For more information about what to do if a creditor got a default against you, see the toolkit Setting Aside a Default or Default Judgment in a Debt Collection Case.

    Raising Defenses to Collection Lawsuits

    When you respond to a court case by filing an Answer, you may have defenses you can tell the court about.

    If you don’t tell the court about your defenses in your Answer, you can’t bring them up later.

    List and explain each of your defenses in your Answer to the Complaint, after you have responded to all of the paragraphs in the complaint. You need to put your defenses under a separate heading, like “Defenses,” and include any facts to support them.

    For each defense you have, you need to include a statement of facts.

    To learn about some common defenses read the article Defenses in a Debt Collection Case. Even if none of these defenses apply in your case, you may want to talk to a lawyer to find other ways to defend your case. To find information about lawyers in your area, look at the “Find a Lawyer” section of this page.

    Prove it in Court

    If you raise any defenses, be prepared to talk about them in court.

    When you’re defending a case in court, you may want to have a lawyer. A lawyer can help you raise defenses to debt collection. To find information about lawyers in your area, look at the Find a Lawyer section of this page.