How to Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection


How to Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection

Getting served with a lawsuit can be scary. Your palms get sweaty, your heart races, and your mind goes blank. What do you do next? Don’t panic. You have options.

First, take a deep breath. Then, read the lawsuit paperwork carefully. Make sure you understand what the plaintiff (the person suing you) is claiming. Look at the amount they say you owe. Double check the plaintiff has the right person and that the debt is truly yours. Mistakes happen.

You typically have around 30 days to file a written response with the court after being served. This is called an “Answer.” If you don’t respond in time, the court may enter a default judgment against you. You don’t want that.

What to Include in Your Answer

Your Answer allows you to respond to each claim in the lawsuit. It’s basically where you say, “Yes, that’s true” or “No, that’s bogus.” Here’s what to include:

  • Your name and contact information
  • The name of the court and case number
  • Responses to each numbered paragraph in the lawsuit
  • Any “affirmative defenses” that apply to your case

Responding to the Claims

Go through the lawsuit paragraph-by-paragraph. Write “Admit,” “Deny,” or “Lack sufficient information” in response to each claim. If you disagree with how the plaintiff stated something, clarify the facts as you see them. Be truthful – don’t deny something you know is true.

Affirmative Defenses

Affirmative defenses are reasons why you shouldn’t have to pay even if the debt is valid. Common defenses include:

  • The statute of limitations has expired – There are time limits on how long a plaintiff has to sue you to collect different kinds of debts. For credit card debt in California, it’s 4 years for example. Check out this chart of statute of limitation laws by state.
  • Disputing the amount owed – Maybe you made some payments that weren’t credited. You can dispute the amount the plaintiff claims you owe.
  • Unfair practices – If the plaintiff did anything illegal or improper in trying to collect, like harassing you with phone calls, you may be able to get the case dismissed.

See a full list of defenses that may apply in this Nolo article.

How to File Your Answer

Each court has slightly different rules for filing. Ask the court clerk or check their website. Generally, you’ll print and sign your Answer and submit the original plus a few copies to the court to be filed. Include a certificate of service showing you sent a copy to the plaintiff.

You’ll likely have to pay a filing fee, though you can request a waiver if you can’t afford it. Once filed, your Answer will be sent to the plaintiff and the court.

Next Steps After Filing Your Answer

After you submit your response, the court will schedule additional hearings and deadlines. Make sure you understand and follow these procedures. Show up when required. Consider hiring a lawyer if you can afford one.

Many debt collection lawsuits end in settlement agreements. This means you and the plaintiff agree on a reduced lump sum payment to make the lawsuit go away. Settlements often save money compared to the original amount demanded. Be prepared to negotiate.

If you can’t settle, the case will go to trial. You’ll have to present evidence and make arguments explaining why you don’t owe the debt or owe a lesser amount.

Debt lawsuits are complicated but manageable if you educate yourself and respond promptly. Breathe. Seek help from consumer advocacy groups like the National Association of Consumer Advocates if you need guidance. You got this.

Key Laws and Precedents

These laws and court decisions establish important consumer rights and defenses related to debt collection:

Law/Case What it Means
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Limits how and when debt collectors can contact you, prohibits harassment and false statements.
Midland Funding v. Johnson, 137 S.Ct. 1407 (2017) Filing a proof of claim on a time-barred debt does not violate the FDCPA.
Telephone Consumer Protection Act Restricts robocalls and texts from debt collectors.

Check out this Nolo article for more details on consumer defense laws. Use these protections to your advantage when responding to a collections lawsuit.

The Bottom Line

Getting sued for debt can be overwhelming. But you have the power to stand up for yourself. Educate yourself on the law. File an Answer explaining your side of things. Seek help if you need it. And take a deep breath – you got this! With preparation and perseverance, you can get through it.

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