If you leave your credit card balance unpaid, your credit card company may sue you to collect it. A lawsuit isn't guaranteed but, should one occur, you don't simply have to accept a court judgment against you and submit to wage garnishment, bank levies or any other aggressive collection method the credit card company can use after winning a lawsuit. You have the option to fight the credit card company in court -- even if you legitimately owe the debt.
Filing an Answer
When a credit card company sues you, it serves you with a summons and complaint. The summons contains the details of the case and the date of the lawsuit hearing, while the complaint informs you of the plaintiff's reason for filing the suit. In the case of a debt collection suit, the complaint details the amount the credit card company claims that you owe. If you intend to defend yourself in court, you must answer the summons and complaint and provide both the court and the credit card company with a copy of your answer. The answer notes that you intend to defend yourself in court and notifies the credit card company of the defense you intend to use. If an answer form is not included in your summons and complaint, you can pick one up at your county courthouse.
You must have a defense against the lawsuit. If you do not have a defense, the judge will decide the case in favor of the credit card company. If you do not owe the debt, you can use this fact as a defense. You also can use an expired statute of limitations as a defense in court. Each state gives creditors a limited period of time to file suit against residents in that particular state. If this time period has passed and the creditor files a lawsuit anyway, informing the court of the expired statute of limitations will result in the judge dismissing the creditor's suit. Although a lawyer can be beneficial in helping you defend your case, the court does not require you to have legal counsel when defending yourself against a debt collection lawsuit.
Burden of Proof
When you present your defense to the court, the burden of proof lies with the creditor. For example, if you claim that the debt does not belong to you, the creditor must provide documentation proving to the court that the debt is, in fact, yours. Credit card companies frequently sell unpaid accounts to debt collectors, which then sue consumers. While debt collectors purchase the accounts, they do not always have the supporting documentation necessary to prove the debtor actually owes the debt should the debtor defend himself in court. A collection agency that knows it cannot prove its case will often drop the lawsuit if the debtor files an answer and mounts a defense.
If you do not file an answer with the court and do not mount a defense against a credit card lawsuit, the credit card company or collection agency that filed a lawsuit against you will win the suit automatically. The court then grants the plaintiff a default judgment. Even if you legitimately owe the debt, you can still demand that the plaintiff prove that you owe the debt in court -- lowering your chances of facing a judgment over your unpaid account balance.
- LawHelp: How to Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection; February 2007
- MSN Money: Is There a Statute of Limitations on Debt?; Liz Pulliam Weston; July 2010
- Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project: The Basics of Defending Creditor Lawsuits
- Cornell University Law School: Federal Rules of Civil Procedure -- Default Judgment
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