How do I Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection?
Authored By: Northwest Justice Project
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This info helps you represent yourself when you have been served with a lawsuit for debt collection. It should be used with our publication "Debtors' Rights in a Lawsuit". #0205EN.
- 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?
- I have filled out the documents (Notice of Appearance and/or Answer). Now what?
- Court Forms
Use this packet if you have been served with a lawsuit in a debt collection case and want to keep a court from entering a default judgment against you. Alternatively, you can use our Answering a Lawsuit for Debt Collection (Do-it-Yourself Forms). It is a guided interview that will help you fill out the forms and assemble them for you. We also suggest you read Debtors' Rights in a Lawsuit.
*This packet is not a substitute for actual representation by a lawyer. Try to talk to or hire a lawyer before answering papers.
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. If you think your income is protected or exempt from garnishment, you still need to respond, but you should also consult a lawyer.
*If you know for sure your income and/or assets are protected or exempt from garnishment, you should also use our new publication called When Should I File a Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets?
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. IF YOU ARE NAMED AS A DEFENDANT, YOU MUST RESPOND (even if you think the debt is not yours)! Sometimes, the lawsuit will be against you and JOHN DOE or JANE DOE. This happens if the plaintiff is trying to sue both you and your spouse because the plaintiff believes you are married but does not know your spouse's name. If you are married and your spouse is named (either with his/her actual name or JOHN DOE or JANE DOE), you and your spouse must both respond to the Complaint.
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.
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 you know 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 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 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 spouse 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 spouse's actual name.
When both you and your spouse are sued (your spouse's actual name is listed or the Complaint says JOHN DOE or JANE DOE), 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."
B. Admissions/Denials/Lack Knowledge
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. The Answer Form in this packet lists possible defenses you may have. Some examples of possible defenses:
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.
Insufficient service of process. You did not get the Summons and Complaint in the manner the law requires. The Summons and Complaint should be handed to you or a person of suitable age who lives with you.
Eligible for Charity Care. 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.
For more information on possible defenses you may have, call CLEAR if you are low-income (1-888-201-1014, M – F 9:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m).
*You can have more than one Affirmative Defense. You should check all boxes on the Answer form that apply. You could lose an "Affirmative Defense" if you file an Answer without stating it.
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.
Sign and date each form.
Make two copies of each form – one for the Plaintiff (or the Plaintiff's attorney, if there is one) and one for yourself.
Hand deliver or mail (DO NOT FAX) one copy of each form to the Plaintiff or the Plaintiff's attorney, if there is one. You can do this yourself – you do not need someone else to do this for you.
If you deliver the forms in person, the Plaintiff's attorney must receive the documents by the deadline (20 days from the date the Summons and Complaint were handed to you or a member of your household). Ask the attorney or office staff to date-stamp your copy.
If you mail the documents, you must put them in the mail at least 3 days before the deadline. Ask the Post Office for tracking and delivery confirmation.
- Fill out the Certificate of Service
In the Certificate of Service, fill out the caption. You need to put the date you are mailing or hand-delivering the documents to Plaintiff or Plaintiff's attorney.
In the next blank, list which documents you are mailing or hand-delivering. (Example: Notice of Appearance, Answer)
Next, you must list the Plaintiff's attorney's name and address.
At the bottom, put the date and place (the City and State) where you filled out the Certificate of Service. Sign the Certificate and make one copy for your records.
If the Summons and Complaint have been filed with the court (there will be a case number in the caption of the Complaint), take all of the original documents (the ones you actually signed) to the Clerk of the Court and file them. Have your copies date-stamped to prove they were filed. If there is no case number, skip this step. (If, however, at a later date, the Plaintiff files the Summons and Complaint with the court, you must add a case number to the original documents you prepared and file them with the Clerk of Court).
Keep your copies.
*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.
You can use our Answering a Lawsuit for Debt Collection (DIY Forms) online interview to create the necessary court forms
The following forms are available for you to download in MS Word format:
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 May 2016.
© 2016 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.)