You should also file an Appearance form, so you don't risk a judge ruling against you. An appearance tells the court and the plaintiff that you will participate in the court process.
For small claims court, you do not have to file an answer, but you should still file an appearance.
Things to consider if someone has started a small claims case against you
If you received notice that someone has started a court case against you, you have a few options of what to do.
Option 1: Resolve the issue without going to court
There are other options besides going to court that cost less and are faster:
- Settle: Agree with the other party on your own. You have more control of the outcome because a judge or jury is not making the final decision.
- Mediation: Reach an agreement with the other party with the help of a neutral third party. The mediator does not decide what happens. The mediator helps you reach an agreement that is documented in a contract that both parties must follow.
Option 2: Do nothing
You could choose to do nothing if you received notice that someone has started a lawsuit against you. However, you should know that:
- The court may enter a default judgment against you. This means that the person who filed a court case against you may get what they asked for.
- If the court enters a default judgment against you and you want to challenge it, you must file court forms asking the court to vacate the default judgment. You should file the forms within 30 days of the date on the default judgment, or it will be harder to get rid of the default judgment.
Option 3: Respond to the court papers and participate in the court case
You can have your day in court. Here are some things to keep in mind about responding to the case:
- To go to court, tell your side, and have a court decide what happens, you must respond to the court papers you received.
- To respond, you must file an Appearance form and an Answer with the court. Pro se means that you are going to court on your own without a lawyer.
- Keep in mind that it costs time and money to file an Answer in court. Court cases may take several months and even a year or years to finish. Court cases often include: fees to file your case, fees to pay a lawyer, and time spent in court which may be the time you have to take off from work.
1. Fill out forms
- Appearance: Tells the court and the other party that you are participating in the court case on your own without a lawyer. It also tells the court and the other party if you want your case to be decided by a judge or a judge and a jury.
- If the judge asked you to file an Answer too, don't use this form. Use the program below.
- Answer and Appearance: Even though you don't have to file an Answer in this type of court case, a judge may still ask you to do it and then you are required to file one out. This program will help you fill out both an Answer and Appearance.
An Answer is a written response to the court saying whether you agree or disagree with the reasons the other party used to sue you. This response is also where you raise affirmative defenses or reasons the other party should not win and counterclaims that you have against the other party about the issues in the court case.
Learn more about Responding to a court case.
Note: Before you fill out and file your Answer, talk to an attorney about filing a Motion to Dismiss if you have a legal reason to have the Complaint dismissed or a Motion to Quash if you have a legal reason to challenge the service of process, which is the way you received the court papers.
2. File the Appearance and Answer forms with the court
Now that you have filled out your forms, you need to file them with the clerk. The method you are required to use depends on the county where you are filing.
- E-filing: Some counties require you to file your forms and documents electronically. See E-Filing Basics for more information.
- Paper filing: If you can paper file or have an E-filing Exemption Certificate, take your completed forms to the circuit court clerk's office in the courthouse. See courthouse locations.
When you file your forms with the clerk they become part of the case. The clerk will stamp your forms. This stamp is important because it's proof that you filed the form with the court.
- E-filing: The documents you want to file with the court have to be uploaded into the system. You will need to create an account. See E-filing Basics for details.
- Paper filing: If you are paper filing bring the forms to the clerk at the courthouse in the county where you are filing. Bring all your copies and the originals with you when you file. Ask the clerk to stamp all your forms. They will keep the original. Keep at least one copy for your records. See courthouse locations.
There is a fee to file most forms. The cost depends on the type of case you have and the county where you are filing. Contact your local circuit clerk's office for information on the fees.
If you do not have money to pay court fees, use the Application for Waiver of Court Fees program.
3. Send a copy of your Appearance and Answer forms to the other parties
After you file your forms, you need to take the following actions:
- Send a copy of your stamped Appearance and Answer forms to all the other parties in the case. If a party has a lawyer, send a copy to the lawyer. You can find contact information for the other parties in the case on the other documents that have been filed in the court case;
- Send the copies in the way you said you would on the Answer form, whether that was by hand delivery, by mail, or by email. You may only send the forms by email if the other party has agreed or you are sending it to the other party's attorney;
- Send the copies of your forms by 5:00 PM on the same day you file them with the circuit clerk; and
- Keep one copy of each court stamped form for your records.
4. Go to court
Follow these suggestions when going to court:
- Get to the courthouse at least 30 minutes before your hearing time;
- Go to the courtroom listed on your court forms. If your forms do not have a courtroom number, look for a list of cases at the courthouse or ask the circuit clerk;
- Check-in quietly with the courtroom staff;
- Wait for your name and case number to be called; and
- When your case is called, walk up to the judge and introduce yourself;
- Explain briefly what you want out of the case;
- After listening to you and to the other side, the judge will let you know what happens next.
Learn more about Going to court.
5. Prepare for trial
To prepare for trial, do the following things:
- Organize your main points;
- Read the complaint again;
- Know how to explain your side of the story;
- Organize your documents so they can be easily used;
- Locate witnesses who know the facts;
- Bring expert witnesses (a mechanic, for example) who will support your case; and
- Know what their witnesses will say.
If the clerk issues the subpoena, the person you want as a witness is required to come to court. You will have to pay any witness you forced to come to court.
All small claims court sessions are open to the public. You may attend any of these courtroom proceedings to observe.
6. Go to the trial
The trial will be in front of the judge only, or in front of a jury and a judge.
The plaintiff will have the first chance to present evidence and witnesses to prove their case. To do so, the plaintiff may show the judge or jury papers, or ask witnesses to answer questions. This is called testimony.
When they finish, you and the judge can ask the witness questions. Then, you will have a chance to present evidence and witnesses. The plaintiff and the judge can question (cross-examine) your witnesses.
If no jury was requested, the judge will either dismiss the case or give the plaintiff a judgment for the money.
If it is a jury trial, the jury will talk privately, and then give their decision to the judge. Based on the jury's conclusion, the judge will either dismiss the case or award the plaintiff a judgment for money.
If you win the case
If the judge dismisses the complaint, the case is over. You do not need to do anything more unless the plaintiff appeals the case or files anything more. You will get notified if any of these things happen.
If you lose the case
If the plaintiff proves that you owe the money, the judge will give them a money judgment. This is a court document that says you owe the plaintiff money. The judgment may also include court costs.
This does not mean that you have to pay the plaintiff on the day the judgment is entered. However, if you do not pay, the plaintiff can ask the court to have the money:
You will also have to pay the plaintiff's court fees for taking these actions.
If you do not pay right away, interest will start collecting on the day of the judgment. The rate is 9% a year. The longer you wait, the more you will have to pay.
Also, a judgment against you will show up on your credit report.
Either party can appeal a decision if they lose their case. The court that you would take your case to is called an appellate court.
In most counties, you must file an appeal within 30 days of the day the judge enters a judgment. Appeals are complicated and require additional fees. You should talk to a lawyer before appealing your case.
Learn more about Appealing a case.
Updated: January 2018