Being taken to court is nerve-wracking, especially if it is over a debt you do not owe or cannot pay. Whether you dispute owing the debt or its amount or cannot afford to pay the debt, there are ways to successfully fight a lawsuit. While you should always be honest in court, there are ways to force credit card companies to give up on a suit.
Check the statute of limitations in your state. As soon as you are notified of a lawsuit against you by a credit card company, find out what the time limits are for filing such a suit and whether the company has met them. All states have statutes of limitation for filing lawsuits, and in many states, the limit is either four or six years after the last payment on the debt. It is not uncommon for credit-card companies to ignore the statute of limitations in filing a lawsuit, because if you don't argue that the time limits have passed, the lawsuit can proceed. If the time limit has not passed, you cannot argue this point.
To find the law in your state, either call the court in which your case is filed or the superior court in your county. The phone number of the court in which your case is filed should be listed on the paperwork you received regarding the suit. You can get the phone number for your local superior court by calling your county government (see Resources).
Request verification of the debt. Under federal law, any debt collector, including a credit card company, is required to verify that you actually owe the debt. The procedure involves checking your name, address and Social Security number, or other personal information, against the credit card application. If the company does not have the information needed to verify the debt or it turns out that they have the wrong person, you can raise the issue in court.
Prepare and submit a written denial. The rules are different in each state, but you have only a limited amount of time to submit a response to the court. If the deadline passes and you have not submitted a response, the credit card company is likely to win the case by default. Be honest in your response, but do not make any admissions. Deny any allegations made in the lawsuit that are not true and raise any defenses you have, such as that the lawsuit was filed outside the statute of limitations, that the amount being sought is incorrect, that payments were calculated incorrectly or that you have paid the debt. Have the response notarized and submit it to the court. In some states, there may be a fee for submitting a response.
Request evidence and witnesses. Because the credit card company is bringing the lawsuit, it has a burden to prove that you owe the debt. Ask for proof of the debt, as well as a list of any witnesses the company intends to call. Rules vary by state, but generally, the credit card company is required to provide you with a copy of the evidence it has against you. This gives you time to review the records and plan your defense.
Review records and information provided by the credit card company. Make sure the math is correct, that payments have been calculated correctly and you are being sued for the correct amount. Compare the documents to your bank statements and payment records; look for any inconsistencies in their case that you can point out in court.
If the company provides only an affidavit, or does not provide any evidence of the debt, use this fact to argue in court that they have not provided evidence of the debt.
Gather evidence. Locate bank records, canceled checks, billing statements and any other documentation you have related to the debt. Make copies and organize them in a way that will make sense when you present them in court. Make the credit card company prove that its records are correct.
When your case is set for trial, be sure to show up. This may sound silly, but many people fail to show up for the trial, and the credit card company wins by default. Respectfully show the judge your evidence, request to cross-examine witnesses and, while being honest, present your defense.
Request that the case be dismissed for lack of proper evidence, lack of witnesses, exceeding the statute of limitations or for seeking the improper amount owed. If the attorney for the credit card company does not show up for the trial, you can ask that the case be dismissed as well.
Tips & Warnings
- Consider hiring an attorney to assist you in your case if the debt is more than a few hundred dollars. Often, hiring an attorney is less expensive than a judgment against you.
- Information on the statute of limitations may be online, but you should call to verify that it is correct and up to date. You do not want to base your court case on incorrect information. Not all debt cases have the same statute of limitations. The time limits can depend on the type of debt and the type of contract. It's best to speak with a court official or attorney who can advise you of the statute of limitations on credit-card debt.
- You also may be able to obtain information about the statute of limitations in your state by contacting a nearby legal-aid office. Legal-aid offices usually consist of attorneys and paralegals who assist low-income clients; they often work with the courts to provide basic information to litigants (see Resources).
- Never be disrespectful in court, even if you are angry, confused or upset. The judge expects you to remain calm and present your case in a clear, businesslike manner.
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