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Answering a Complaint in Probate & Family Court

 

I just got a summons and complaint. It says I have to answer by a certain date.

If you got a summons and complaint, you are the "defendant" in this case. The person who filed the complaint is the "plaintiff."

Every defendant gets a chance to tell the court his or her version of the problem that the complaint is about. First, you file an answer. The answer is an "outline" of your side. When you go to court, you can explain each point in more detail.

What is an answer?

An answer is your answer to the complaint that was filed.  The court already has the complaint form from the plaintiff. When you file your answer with the court, you tell the court, in writing, the statements in the complaint that:

  • you agree with,
  • you disagree with, and
  • you do not know about.

How do I answer the complaint?

  1. Read the summons and make sure you know the date you must answer by.
  2. Read the complaint carefully. You must have the complaint in front of you to write your answer.
  3. Write your answer.
  4. Sign and date the answer.
  5. Make copies for the plaintiff and yourself.
  6. Mail a copy to the plaintiff. Use certified mail. If the plaintiff has a lawyer, mail a copy to the plaintiff's lawyer.
  7. File your answer with the court by the date on the summons. Filing your answer means, take your answer to the court, give it to the clerk. The clerk will stamp it the answer with the date and time. You must file your answer in the same court that is on the Complaint.

Read the Complaint

There is a number in front of each paragraph in the complaint. Write the number for each paragraph in front of your answer to that paragraph. Some paragraphs in the complaint may have more than one statement.

In a Complaint, the first paragraph is usually basic facts. It names the Plaintiff and Defendant. It also says where they each live.

The middle paragraphs are a very brief version of the Plaintiff’s side of the story. It also lists the facts as the Plaintiff sees them.  
The last paragraph often begins “Wherefore the Plaintiff requests that the court….” This paragraph tells the court what the Plaintiff wants the court to order. 

The middle paragraphs are a very brief version of the Plaintiff’s side of the story. They also list the facts as the Plaintiff sees them.  

The last paragraph often begins “Wherefore the Plaintiff requests that the court….” This paragraph tells the court what the Plaintiff wants the court to order. 

Write your answer

Number your paragraphs to match the paragraphs in the Complaint. Write one sentence in the answer for every statement in the complaint. Only tell the court that you agree, disagree or you do not know if the statement is true.

Lawyers usually write "the Defendant admits...," if you agree with the statement. They write "Defendant denies...," if you disagree with the statement. You can talk about yourself as "the defendant" or you can  just say "I admit," or "I deny that...."

If you disagree, you can also write one short sentence about what is true.

Example

The complaint gives the wrong birthday for a child. You can say, "I deny that Rafe's birthday is 3 November, 2008. Rafe's birthday is 13 November, 2008."

Where do I get an Answer form?

There is no "official" court answer form. Most lawyers make up their own, but all Answers must include certain information:

  1. The name of the court - you can find this at the top of the Complaint you got. If you are reading this article the Complaint you got was probably from the Probate & Family Court.
  2. The Court Division - this is the county where the complaint was filed. Again, look at the Complaint you got. The Division is in the upper left corner.
  3. The Docket No. - Look at the upper right corner of the Complaint. If the space is empty look at the Summons. If you cannot find a Docket No. anywhere, you can ask the clerk at the court when you file your Answer for the Docket No.
  4. The Plaintiff's name. 
  5. The Defendant's name - your name.
  6. The kind of complaint you are answering. Read the complaint you got served - it will say, "Complaint for..." at the top, under the name of the court.
  7. The plaintiff's address.
  8. Your address.
  9. A numbered list of answers to the statements in the Complaint. This is the "meat" of your answer - where you outline your version of the problem to the court. See write your answer.
  10. Your signature.
  11. The date you file your answer.
  12. A Certificate of Service that tells the court how you made sure you sent a copy of the answer to the plaintiff.

See some examples of answers on the Legal Forms page of the Children and Families section.

What is a "Certificate of Service"?

A Certificate of Service is the statement you make to the court that says you have mailed a copy of the answer to the plaintiff. If the plaintiff has a lawyer, you can mail a copy just to the lawyer. You must tell the court who you sent the copy to. You must also tell the court how you mailed the answer, mail or certified mail, hand-delivered, or some other way.

What do I do after I fill out the Answer?

Sign and date the answer with the date you are going to file it at court. 

Fill out a certificate of service, sign it and date it the same day you plan to file the answer at court. 

Make copies of the answer and the certificate of service. Mail one copy to the plaintiff or the plaintiff's lawyer. Use US First Class Mail, Certified Mail or deliver the documents in person. Keep a copy for yourself. Take the original Answer and Certificate of Service to the court named in the Complaint. Give the originals to the clerk at the court. 

How much does it cost to file an Answer?

Nothing. The only cost to you is the photocopying and the price of mailing the papers to the plaintiff or the lawyer.

Is there a time limit? How long do I have to Answer?

Look at the Summons. You need to file an Answer by the date in the Summons. For most cases you have twenty days after you were served the Complaint, but check the Summons.

What if I miss the deadline in the Summons?

It is very important to file your answer on time. If you missed the deadline, you can try to file your answer late. It is better to file a late answer than no answer, but not all clerks will accept a late answer.  You may have to ask the judge for permission to file a late answer.  If that happens you would have to file a motion for permission to file a late answer.

What happens next?

Your Answer goes into the court file. When your case comes up, the judge can open the file and read your Answer.  Also the plaintiff or the plaintiff's lawyer should read your Answer. The case should go more smoothly when every one is prepared.

If there are financial issues, such as child support, is there anything else I will need to file?

If the case involves financial issues you will need to file a Financial Statement. You will not necessarily need to file the Financial Statement by the time you file your Answer. You will need to file a Financial Statement upon proper request by the other party, if ordered by the court, or following court rules. Parties must file a current Financial Statement at hearings about financial issues such as child support.

Also, you will need to fill out a Child Support Guidelines Worksheet for any court hearing about child support.

Could it ever hurt me to file an Answer?

Be very careful if you file an Answer to a family law Complaint outside Massachusetts.  Sometimes a family law case should not be heard in another state. If you do not tell the court that the case should be heard in Massachusetts, you might be stuck arguing a case out of state. This could cause problems for you.

If you are served a Complaint from another state, speak to an attorney in that state for some advice.


Produced by Oonagh Doherty, Massachusetts Justice Project
Created January 2012


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