How do I Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection?
Authored By: Northwest Justice Project
- Read this in:
- Spanish / Español
- Should I answer the Complaint?
- Do I have to answer the Complaint?
- What if I do not answer the Complaint?
- I have offered to make small payments on my bill, or I have told the plaintiff I would make full payments as soon as possible. Can the plaintiff sue me anyway?
- I cannot afford to pay the debt. Can they sue me anyway?
- What is a Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets?
- What are a Summons and Complaint?
- What is an Answer?
- How do I fill out the Answer?
- How do I fill out the Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets?
- I have filled out the documents. Now what?
- Do you have sample forms I can see?
- Where can I get blank forms to fill out on a computer?
Use this packet if you have been served with a lawsuit in a debt collection case, and if you want to keep a court from entering a default judgment against you.
*This packet is not a substitute for actual representation by a lawyer. Try to talk to or hire a lawyer before answering papers.
Use this packet with the Debtors' Rights in a Lawsuit publication. We also now have an online interview that will help you create the necessary court forms that are referenced in this packet. The interview can be found at http://www.washingtonlawhelp.org/resource/answering-a-lawsuit-for-debt-collection-self-help-forms
Yes, if you want to defend the lawsuit. If you do not file an Answer, the court will enter a Default Judgment against you.
No, but if you do not file an Answer, the court will enter a Default Judgment against you.
The plaintiff will win automatically. The plaintiff will get a judgment for everything s/he asked for in the complaint.
I have offered to make small payments on my bill, or I have told the plaintiff I would make full payments as soon as possible. Can the plaintiff sue me anyway?
Yes. They will file a lawsuit. If they win, the court will add the costs of that suit to the amount you owe. The creditor does not have to accept anything less than what you owe.
Yes. That is not a defense.
A declaration is a sworn statement. The Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets lets your creditors know you have income and/or assets the law says they may not take from you. Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
*You can use the blank Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets at the end of this packet.
The person starting a lawsuit must prepare a written statement telling the judge what the problem is and what s/he wants. That statement is the Complaint.
The person starting the lawsuit is the plaintiff. If the lawsuit is against you, you are the defendant.
The plaintiff must have a copy of the Complaint delivered to you so you will know about the lawsuit.
In the Complaint, the plaintiff will make statements about you and about debts the plaintiff believes you owe. JUST BECAUSE THE PLAINTIFF SAYS THINGS ABOUT YOU IN THE COMPLAINT DOES NOT MAKE THEM TRUE. An Answer is your chance to tell the court which of the plaintiff's statements are true (and should be admitted), which statements are not true (and should be denied) and which of these statements you do not know or understand, or cannot remember whether the statement is true (should be denied for lack of information).
You will also get a Summons. It tells you:
you have a right to disagree with the Complaint in writing.
how much time you have to answer the Complaint. You have 20 days from the date the Complaint is handed to you or someone in your home, NOT 20 days from the date stamped on the Summons and Complaint.
where to deliver your Answer.
If you do not tell the court in writing that you disagree with the statements in the Complaint, the judge will assume you agree with it and will often give the plaintiff what s/he asks for. The plaintiff wins by default if you have not answered. If the court enters a Default Judgment against you, you will not get notice of the Judgment if you have not at least filed a Notice of Appearance.
Once the plaintiff gets a judgment against you, s/he may be able to take money from your bank account or paycheck, or take some of your property to pay the judgment. You must file a written response within the time limit in your Summons (usually twenty days from the date the papers are handed to you or someone in your home. Read the Summons carefully for the deadline).
You may respond by delivering to the person who signed the Summons and Complaint either:
a Notice of Appearance AND/OR
A Notice of Appearance states you are appearing in the lawsuit. Delivering a Notice of Appearance will keep the court from entering a default judgment against you without a hearing. A Notice of Appearance does not explain your position in the lawsuit. Your Answer does this.
Use the form Notice of Appearance in this packet. (We have also included a sample Notice.) Try to do both the Notice of Appearance and the Answer at the same time. You must at least do the Notice of Appearance. If you have it delivered and filed before the plaintiff goes to court, s/he must notify you of all future court hearings.
Use the Answer form in this packet. The directions for filling it out are below.
It is your written response to the statements in the Complaint. You are the defendant.
In your Answer,
state whether you ADMIT, DENY, OR LACK KNOWLEDGE of each statement made by the plaintiff. Do not admit any statement unless it is 100% true. DO NOT GUESS! If you do not know whether the account number listed is your credit card number or do not know if the amount the plaintiff says you owe is correct, you should DENY the statement that is made. If you do not understand what the plaintiff is saying, you should say that you LACK KNOWLEDGE.
Type or neatly print your answer. Your Answer must be clear and readable
By filing an Answer in time, you keep your rights to argue about this matter in court and to get notice of future hearings.
You may feel embarrassed or guilty about being in debt. You may just want it all to be over. You should still file an answer. It does not mean you are trying to avoid your debts. You may disagree with the amount the plaintiff asked for in the Complaint. You may want to preserve your right to get notice of future hearings. If you do not file an Answer, you may lose your chance to say how much you think you should pay.
If you file an Answer and lose the court case, you may owe the plaintiff more court costs and attorney fees.
You will need one original and two copies of your Answer. You will file the original with the court. One copy goes to the plaintiff. You keep a copy. The section below, "What to do with the Answer," explains.
A. The Caption
Look at your Summons and Complaint. They have a heading that gives information about the case. This heading is the "caption." All court papers, including the Summons, the Complaint, and your Answer, are "pleadings." All pleadings use this kind of caption.
The caption looks like this:
IN THE ___________________ COURT OF THE STATE OF
IN AND FOR THE COUNTY OF _______________________
(YOUR OPPONENT'S NAME),
The top line gives the name of the court, the state, and the county. Examples: "District Court of Washington for Pierce County;" "In the Superior Court of the State of Washington in and for the County of Pierce."
The left side lists the names of the Plaintiff and Defendant. Sometimes it will list your name and then say JANE DOE or JOHN DOE. This means that if you are married, both you and your husband or wife are being sued. The creditor puts JANE DOE or JOHN DOE if the creditor does not know if you are married or if the creditor does not have your husband or wife's actual name.
When both you and your spouse are sued, you both must respond to the lawsuit. You both must sign and date the Notice of Appearance and you both must sign and date the Answer.
The right side lists the number the court clerk has assigned this case (so they can keep it filed correctly) and the title of that pleading.
If the papers you received have no file number, the plaintiff may have decided to deliver (or serve) the papers to you before filing them with the court. The law allows this. You are still bound by the time limit listed in your Summons. But you may not need to file your Answer with the court yet. You must still deliver a copy to the plaintiff's lawyer (or the plaintiff if s/he has no lawyer). Read your Summons carefully. It should tell you what to do.
When you fill out your Answer, fill in the caption at the top of the page. Copy the needed information from your Summons and Complaint. Copy the names of the plaintiff and defendant just as they are on the Summons and Complaint, even if they spelled your name wrong or called you or your spouse "John Doe."
After filling out the caption, use the middle of the page to give your answers to the statements in the Complaint. Usually, the Complaint's paragraphs are numbered. You may list the numbers and say one of three things about each paragraph of the complaint:
You admit it is a true statement. (Examples: that you live in Pierce County, or that you are not a member of the Armed Forces.) Admit the statement only if you agree with every part of it. Otherwise, deny the statement.
You deny it is a true statement. (Example: that you owe a specific amount of money to the person named.) DO NOT ASSUME YOU OWE A CERTAIN AMOUNT AND DO NOT GUESS.
You lack knowledge. This means you do not know whether the statement is true. (Example 1: The collection agency who is suing you claims it is licensed and bonded. You might assume they are, but you have no evidence. You have never seen their license.) (Example 2: the plaintiff uses words like venue, jurisdiction, or assignment. You do not know what these legal terms mean.) DO NOT GUESS!
Read the Complaint carefully. You must answer all the Complaint's statements by putting a number next to Admit, Deny, or Lacks Knowledge.
You may have technical or legal defenses to the Complaint, such as an argument that the statute of limitations has run. Actions to collect debts have a time limit called the "statute of limitations." It usually starts once the creditor has a right to sue you (example: once you miss a payment). Once the time limit has passed, the creditor can no longer collect from you. The court will dismiss the action. Another defense is that you did not get the Summons and Complaint in the manner the law requires. Or, if the claim is for a hospital bill and the bill should have been paid for by DSHS or should have been covered by Charity Care, this could be a separate defense.
For more information on the Statute of Limitations or other defenses, call CLEAR if you are low-income (1-888-201-1014, M – F 9:10 a.m. – 12:25 p.m.) You could lose an "Affirmative Defense" if you file an Answer without stating it.
*Rule 8(c) of the Civil Rules for Superior Court also lists affirmative defenses.
D. The Signature and Your Address
On the last page, put the date you sign your name. Below that, sign your name with your legal signature (the one you use for checks). Just below your signature, print or type your name so it will be easily readable. Put your address below that. You have finished your Answer.
*REMEMBER: If you and your spouse are both sued (your spouse's name is listed as a Defendant or the Complaint says JOHN DOE or JANE DOE), you both must sign your names and put the date you sign your names.
Sections 1 – 3: Reread the "What is an Answer" section to fill out the first page of the declaration.
Section 4: Check every box that applies to what income you get. Example: You get SSI. You would check the second box under section 4.
Section 5: Do the same thing for assets/property you own. Example: You own a private library worth $1,000. You would check the fourth box under section 5.
Last part of the declaration: Sign the declaration. Fill in the date you signed. Signing guarantees that all the information in the declaration is true. Creditors are very good at finding out what assets and income you have. Be honest in this declaration.
DO NOT attach any documents to the Declaration.
Make at least two copies of your Answer and Notice of Appearance. Deliver one copy of each to the plaintiff's lawyer. (The lawyer's name and address is on the lower right-hand side of the Summons and Complaint.) If the plaintiff is representing him- or herself, deliver a copy of the papers to the plaintiff. If you do not want to deliver them yourself, have a reliable friend do it for you.
You must deliver a copy of your Answer or Notice of Appearance on or before the date in the Summons. You must deliver your Answer and Notice of Appearance on time.
You can deliver a copy of each document personally to the plaintiff's lawyer. You may leave the papers with a secretary or receptionist. Ask the receptionist to stamp the original and copy of each document with a "copy received" stamp showing the date received. This will prove you delivered these documents by the deadline in the Summons.
If you mail the plaintiff's lawyer the documents, you must allow enough time for it to arrive by the deadline (at least three days). It is not enough for the Answer and Notice of Appearance to be postmarked on or before deadline. The plaintiff's lawyer must get it by the deadline in the Summons. If you mail the Answer, you can send one Answer by regular mail and one by certified mail, return receipt requested.
If you mail the Notice of Appearance and/or the Answer, the court needs proof of mailing. Fill out a Certificate of Service. Attach it to the original of the document that you mailed. A sample Certificate of Service and a Certificate of Service form you may use are in this packet. Make extra copies of the form before you use it. You must write what kind of legal paper the Certificate of Service refers to (examples: Answer, Notice of Appearance) and strike out the type of delivery that does not apply. (Example: if you mailed it, cross out "hand-delivered.")
When the plaintiff pays the filing fee and files the Complaint with the court, the court gives it a case number. It will usually be stamped or typed on the upper right-hand side of the Summons and Complaint. The court will have no record of the case and cannot give you any information about it until the plaintiff has filed the case.
If there is a case number on your Summons and Complaint, write in the number on your Answer and Notice of Appearance and file the original(s) with the Court Clerk. File the original Answer and Notice of Appearance. When you file the original Answer and Notice of Appearance, stamp your personal copies with the Clerk's stamp showing the date you filed the originals.
If the Summons and Complaint you got have no case number, the Clerk has no record of your case. You will not be able to file the original of your Answer and Notice of Appearance. You must still follow the regular procedure for delivering a copy of your Answer to the plaintiff's lawyer. Keep your original Answer and Notice of Appearance until you find out the plaintiff has filed the case and it now has a case number. When you get the case number, follow the procedure for filing the original documents above.
*You must file your Answer within the time limit listed in your Summons (usually twenty days). Once you have timely filed your Answer and served the plaintiff's lawyer, you should get notice of any hearings. IF YOU HAVE ALREADY MISSED YOUR TIME LIMIT, FILE AN ANSWER ANYWAY. A late Answer may be better than none at all. If you are too late, and the court has entered a judgment against you, talk to a lawyer right away.
Download this publication in pdf format to view the sample forms.
Yes. You can use our Answering a Lawsuit for Debt Collection - Self Help Forms online interview to create the necessary court forms
The following forms are available for you to download in MS Word format:
- Answer and Affirmative Defenses
- Notice of Appearance
- Certificate of Service
- Declaration of Defendant Regarding Income and Assets Exempt from Garnishment
This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of April 2015.
© 2015 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)