Learning you're the defendant in a debt lawsuit is never good news, but ignoring the summons you've received won't help. Instead, the plaintiff — whether it's a debt collector, a loan company, a credit card firm or a hospital — can win by default if you don't respond.
Read the Paperwork
When you're served with papers for a debt lawsuit, you should receive two different pieces of paperwork:
•The summons tells you you're being sued, and that you have a set amount of time — 20 days, say — to respond. The clock starts ticking when you receive the summons and the complaint, not when it was issued.
•The complaint spells out the details of who is suing you, which court he filed with and how much you allegedly owe.
Read the paperwork over carefully. The summons is important because if you don't respond by the deadline, the plaintiff gets the default win. The complaint may reveal errors in the case that you can use to win. Pay particular attention if the plaintiff is a debt collector rather than the original creditor. It's quite possible the collector is pursuing you for a debt you don't owe, or one that's so old, the right to sue has expired.
Each state sets its own statute of limitations for collecting old debts. The limits range from one year to a decade, depending on the state and the type of debt. You can find the information for your state here.
Decide on Tactics
If the plaintiff has a solid case, you might want to call and negotiate a settlement. If you go to court and lose, the plaintiff may be able to add his legal costs to your bill.
If you intend to fight, you'll have to decide what defenses you'll raise:
•The debt collector didn't buy the debt from your creditor. A debt collector has to be able to prove he's the rightful owner of your debt to proceed with the lawsuit.
•You've already paid the debt.
•You never owed the money. Debt collectors often target the wrong person. Even original creditors make mistakes, or get fooled by identity thieves.
•The statute of limitations has kicked in.
Write the Response
You must submit two papers of your own in response to the lawsuit. The Notice of Appearance is a formal statement that you do intend to appear in court. The answer is another formal document in which you respond to the plaintiff's charges. You must fill these out properly. If you don't want to use a lawyer, look at the complaint and summons to see which courthouse the suit is filed in. Visit it to see sample answers and notices from past cases, or look for old files posted on the court website.
There are legal aid groups all around the country. If there's one near you, it may be able to provide free or low-cost help with your defense and your filing. The American Bar Association has an online search tool for legal help.
Make out the answer according to the format used at your county courthouse. Part of the answer is a list of responses to the list of statements in the complaint.
•If the statements are accurate — your name, your address — acknowledge this.
•If there's an error — you don't owe the debt, it's already paid, or your address is wrong — state that you disagree.
•If you're not sure that something is accurate, don't guess. Admit that you don't have the information.
The answer also lists any affirmative defenses you intend to make, such as the statute of limitations having expired.
Delivering the Papers
Once you've drafted your answer and notice, you have to serve the plaintiff by delivering a copy. Contact the courthouse about the local procedures for doing this. You will need proof of service. If you use the postal service, for instance, send the papers via certified mail, return receipt requested, and save the receipt.
Once you have proof of service, file it along with another copy of your paperwork with the clerk of court.