If you do not pay your bills on time, the creditor can sue you in small claims court or civil court. The creditor is the person or company you owe the money to. Most cases under $7,000 are held in small claims court.
If the creditor or debt collector does not follow the law while trying to get your payments or when filing the lawsuit against you, you may not have to pay the whole amount. You also may not have to pay anything if your income is "protected." You may be able to get help with your case.
If a creditor takes you to civil court, they must “serve notice.” This means the creditor must hire a sheriff, constable, or someone authorized by the law to deliver 2 documents to you:
- a complaint and
- a summons.
The complaint explains what creditor is taking you to court and why.
The summons tells you when and where you need to go for a hearing or file your “Answer” to the complaint.
For civil court, you must file an Answer within 20 days of receiving the summons. An Answer is your chance to explain your side of the story. If you do not answer, you could lose your case. See the fact sheet “How to File An Answer” for more information and an Answer template.
Small Claims Court
If a creditor takes you to small claims court, they must file a “Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial” form. The court sends you a copy of this form in the mail. The form lists the name of the creditor, the day and time you must show up to court, and the amount of money you are being sued for.
For small claims court, filing an Answer is optional—but you must show up at court on your trial date. If you don’t, they enter a default judgment against you. This means you automatically lose the case because you did not show up.
To read more about negotiating strategies, see What defenses and counterclaims could I have?
Types of Creditors
There are 2 different types of creditors who can collect debt:
the “original creditor”, or
a “debt collector.”
The “original creditor” is the person or company you first agreed to pay. An original creditor is the person or company who sold you something on credit or loaned you money. This could be a bank or credit card company.
Original creditors do not always collect their own debts. Sometimes, they hire lawyers or other businesses to help collect payments. They may also sell your debt to another creditor. These lawyers, businesses, and new creditors are all referred to as “debt collectors.” Debt collectors are creditors too.