The small claims court process for debt collection

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Center for Social Justice at Western New England University School of Law & Greater Boston Legal Services
Based On
an article by South Coastal Counties Legal Services, with funding from American College of Bankruptcy Foundation

This how-to article answers common questions about going to small claims court for a debt collection case.

For information on what to do when you get a Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial, read Getting ready for a debt collection case in small claims court first.

Remember: The plaintiff is the debt collector. If you are being sued, you are the defendant.

Should I go to my hearing if I can't afford to pay the debt?

Yes. You must go to your hearing on the date and time in the Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial, even if you do not have the money to pay the debt. If you don’t show up to the hearing, the debt collector wins. 

A small claims lawsuit is not based on if you can pay or not — it is based on if you owe the specific debt amount to that particular plaintiff. Even if you have no money, the court can decide:

  1. the creditor has won the lawsuit, and
  2. you still owe the money to that person or company, plus costs and interest.

If you don’t go you could miss the chance of the debt collector offering to settle your case for a lower amount than what they think you owe. Or making a payment agreement. 


If you miss your hearing date, the court may issue a default judgment.” This means you automatically lose the case and may have to make payments.

If you lose the case, the creditor may garnish your wages, put a lien on your property, or take your car to collect the money you owe. See Money and Property Protected from Collection.

What should I bring?

When you go to your hearing, bring:

  • Your Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial.
  • A pen and paper to take notes.
  • A short, written explanation of your side of the story to help you during the hearing.
  • Witnesses to help you prove your case. They can tell the court that they saw you pay, have seen your emotional distress, etc. You don’t have to bring witnesses but they can help your case a lot. 
  • Any documents that can be used as evidence to support you, like proof of payment.

If your hearing is virtual, see How do I appear at my hearing over Zoom or by phone?

Do I need a lawyer?

You don’t need a lawyer in small claims court. You can speak for yourself during the hearing. But it may be a good idea to get a lawyer or talk with one to get ready for the hearing.

You can look for a lawyer here:

If you can’t find a lawyer, some courts have a "Lawyer for the Day" program for income-eligible people. Each Lawyer for the Day program is different, but services may include:

  • Giving you basic legal advice about your case.
  • Helping you find and fill out court forms.
  • Helping you figure out your next steps in court.
  • Making sure you understand relevant laws, legal resources, and information.
  • Representing you in front of the judge.

To use a court’s Lawyer for the Day program, look for a volunteer lawyer at the courthouse on the day of your hearing. Learn more about the Lawyer for the Day program.

What do I do at court?

Once you get to court:

  1. Find your courtroom. If you don’t know where it is, ask in the “Civil Clerk’s Office.”
  2. Check in with the clerk-magistrate when you get to the courtroom. The clerk-magistrate is like a judge.
  3. Wait for the plaintiff (the debt collector and their lawyer) to get there. When the plaintiff is there, the clerk-magistrate calls your case.
  4. The clerk-magistrate asks for everyone's name and role. Remember, your role is the defendant.
  5. The plaintiff talks about why they should win the case. They may call witnesses to prove their points. Pay attention and don’t interrupt anyone while they are talking.
  6. Your turn is next. Tell the clerk-magistrate your defenses. You can question the witnesses and ask about any documents the plaintiff gives the court.

Be respectful to the clerk-magistrate in the hearing. Answer all questions as best as you can.

For more tips on how to represent yourself in court, see “How can I defend myself in my case?”

How do I appear at my hearing over Zoom or by phone?

Some hearings are done by a Zoom video conference or phone call. Your Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial has the meeting ID number for a Zoom hearing and the phone number if you are calling in. If you have any questions, call the clerk’s office right away. 

To get ready for a Zoom hearing:

  • You need a computer or a smartphone. Tell the clerk-magistrate if you don’t own either one of these. 
  • Find out what the login process is before the hearing. 
  • Write the link for the hearing down and practice logging in before the hearing.

At the Zoom hearing, your camera needs to be on when you are called by the clerk-magistrate to show that you are the one speaking. Mute your microphone when you are not speaking. There are other cases taking place at the meeting. Your camera can be off when the clerk-magistrate is not addressing your case. 

If the hearing is over the phone:

  • Call the clerk beforehand and make sure you have the right phone number. If the number does not work, let the clerk’s office know.
  • Dial into the hearing a few minutes before your hearing is scheduled.
  • Listen carefully for your case number and name.

For more information, see the Massachusetts Court System’s Guide to Virtual Hearings.

Can I see the plaintiff’s documents?

Yes. You have the right to see any documents that the plaintiff is going to show to the court. This evidence is known as “debt validation.” The plaintiff must have these documents available and be ready to go to trial if you (the defendant) are. If the plaintiff doesn’t have the documents or is not ready to move forward, you win the case.

The plaintiff’s documents are usually things like:

  • Plaintiff’s Affidavit, 
  • Bill of Sale,
  • Creditor’s Affidavit,
  • Account Schedule,
  • Data Sheet, and 
  • Billing Statements. 

Take time to look over the plaintiff’s documents before you go in front of the clerk-magistrate. Ask for more time if they call your case before you finish looking them over. Answer these questions:

  • Do I remember this account? 
  • Does this information look right? 
  • Is this address correct? Is my name correct? 
  • Are they the right people to pay? 
  • If they are not the original creditor, do they have proof they bought my account?
  • Do I recognize the name of the company? 
  • Does the company just have one account statement or many? 
  • Do they have a copy of the original agreement I signed?
  • Is my account specifically mentioned in the Bill of Sale?
How can I defend myself in my case?

Defenses are the legal reasons why the creditor should not win the case. There are different kinds of defenses you can use in court. These include: 

  • You were not 18 years old when you signed the agreement to buy the item.
  • The creditor is suing you too late (if the debt is from more than 6 years ago). 
  • You filed for bankruptcy. 
  • You already paid the bill. 
  • The debt is not yours and the debt collection agency has the wrong person.
  • The creditor doesn’t have a document showing they bought your account.
  • You have exempt income or assets.
  • The notice to appear in court was not sent to you or sent to the wrong address.


The fact that you can’t afford to pay your bills is not a defense in a lawsuit for unpaid bills.

Two common defenses against creditors' claims are “lack of proof of ownership” and “lack of notice.” 

Lack of proof of ownership

You had a contract with the original creditor. You did not have a contract with the debt buyer. Because of this a debt buyer has to produce documents that show they bought your debt. Often, their lawyer doesn’t have a document showing that they bought your specific account. Credit and billing histories that are not accurate or complete are not enough to show proof of your debt. If they don’t have proof of your debt or that they bought your debt, that is “lack of proof of ownership.” 

An affidavit from the collector saying your account was bought is not enough. An Excel spreadsheet with a list of accounts including yours is not enough. 

Lack of Notice

If you did not get a paper in the mail from the court saying there was a court case against you, and you missed the date, it may not be too late. When you don’t show up to court on the date of your hearing, you get a “default judgment.” You can file a motion at any time to  “vacate” the default judgment against you and reschedule your court date. To “vacate” the judgment means to dismiss or cancel it. 

Explain to the court staff what happened, and they will tell you what to do. Make sure that you bring any proof you have that shows you didn’t get the notice. This is usually something showing that you didn’t live at the address where the notice was sent. 


Bankruptcy is a way federal courts help businesses and people deal with debt. If you declare bankruptcy, you may be able to get rid of your debt and start over. If you are seriously thinking about filing for bankruptcy you should tell the creditor. But don’t do that if you are not sure. Filing bankruptcy can be tricky. Read Answers to Common Bankruptcy Questions to learn more.

What are my courtroom rights?

You have just as many rights as the plaintiff. They probably have a lawyer. But don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself and don’t let yourself be bullied. When speaking to the plaintiff, be respectful but don’t back down. Don’t agree to things that are not true. Remember, they have to prove that you owe them money. The plaintiff often can’t win without documents that prove their case.

When do I know what the court decides?

At the end of the hearing, the clerk-magistrate either decides the case right away or “takes the case under advisement.” This means they want time to decide. The decision is mailed to you within a few weeks.

If the clerk-magistrate rules in your favor (often called a judgment for the defendant), you don’t have to do anything. The plaintiff cannot appeal the decision. 

If the clerk-magistrate rules in favor of the plaintiff, the court schedules a payment review hearing. This is a hearing for the court to look at if you can pay the judgment amount. You have the right to appeal the decision within 10 days.

See What happens if I lose my debt collection case? to learn more about what happens when the plaintiff wins the case.

Resource Boxes
More Resources
Helpful Links
Money_Debt_Small claims helpful links

District Court locations: Find your court address and phone number.

Guide to virtual hearings: Learn how to connect by video or phone.

Center for Social Justice intake form: Apply for free legal help with a small claims debt collection case. 


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