- It’s always better to respond to a court summons than to ignore it.
- Just because you’re being sued for credit card debt doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll have to pay.
- You might be able to negotiate a payment plan, settle for a lower amount, or be relieved of responsibility to pay.
Table of Contents
- What is a court-ordered summons and complaint?
- Why you should answer a summons
- How to answer a summons when you’re being sued for debt
- First, read the complaint
- Using an affirmative defense to answer the summons
- Answering the complaint: fill out the form correctly
- File your answer on time
- Steps to take if you owe the credit card or collection agency money
No one likes being summoned to court. It’s scary. And if you receive a court summons for credit card debt, you might also be ashamed.
It’s far worse to ignore a summons than to answer it. Dealing with a summons for debt isn’t that difficult or embarrassing. Here’s how.
What is a court-ordered summons and complaint?
A summons is your official notice that someone has filed a civil lawsuit against you. The person or entity suing you becomes the “plaintiff” and you become the “defendant.” In the case of credit card debt, the plaintiff is likely to be either a credit card company or a debt collector.
To begin a credit card debt lawsuit, the plaintiff files a court document called a complaint. The complaint is attached to the summons and explains why you’re being sued, how much money the plaintiff wants, and why it’s entitled to receive that money. It also includes a demand for judgment in the desired amount. That means the plaintiff is asking the court to order you to pay that amount.
Most credit card companies or debt collectors have attorneys. The lawyers file the complaint with the court clerk to start the lawsuit.
The court clerk then creates the summons and attaches it to the complaint. A summons must include:
The name of the case (for instance, Mr. Collection Agency v. Average Joe Smith)
The case number
Your deadline for filing an answer to the complaint
Where to file your answer
The name, address, and phone number of the attorney representing the plaintiff
Why you should answer a summons
Don’t freak out when you receive a summons. And don’t bury your head in the sand, because ignoring a summons is much worse than answering it.
Here’s what can happen if you answer the summons:
You could get an opportunity to settle your debt with your creditor and skip going to court
Even if you lose your case, the judge can order the plaintiff to accept an installment plan if you can’t afford to pay the full amount right away. The payment might be affordable enough to get you out of trouble.
You might be able to assert an affirmative defense and avoid paying some or all of your balance. An affirmative defense is a legal reason why you shouldn’t have to pay the debt. Keep reading, and we’ll describe specific examples below.
Here’s what can happen if you ignore a summons:
When you don’t show up to court, the judge can (and usually does) award the plaintiff a default judgment. That means they get what they asked for. They win, you lose.
A default judgment gives the plaintiff permission to take more severe steps to collect what you owe. They can garnish your wages, attach your bank account (take money from it), or seize your property.
You’ll be notified of a default judgment and have a chance to respond. You might be able to fight a default judgment if you had a good reason for missing your court date. But there are no guarantees, and you’ll still have to face the consequences of being sued.
How to answer a summons when you’re being sued for debt
What exactly does it mean to “answer” a summons and complaint?
Your answer is a formal response and tells the plaintiff and the court that you intend to fight the lawsuit. Your answer is not where you argue your case — it’s much simpler than many people think.
First, read the complaint
Before reacting to the summons, read the complaint carefully. Who is suing you? A credit card company? Collection agency? Or a debt buyer? What is your deadline to respond? Did the plaintiff attach a copy of your original agreement with the creditor to the complaint? How much do they want you to pay?
Once you know this, gather the information and documents you have on the debt. Is it yours? How old is it? How much do you owe?
If the debt is valid, check the last time you made a payment, because that determines whether the plaintiff has the right to collect from you.
Using an affirmative defense to answer the summons
Affirmative defenses ask the court to find in your favor even if everything the plaintiff claims is true. You must state your affirmative defenses in your answer or you can’t use them later. This is where it may make sense to hire a lawyer, especially if the amounts involved are large.
Here are eight common debt-related affirmative defenses that you might assert if they apply:
The statute of limitations has expired. This means the debt is too old to be legally collectible in your state.
Someone stole your identity. You must report the theft to the authorities and notify the debt collector about the identify theft to claim this defense.
You already paid off your debt. Sometimes a paid debt is mistakenly sent to a collection agency or sold to a debt buyer. Or you might pay it off or reach an agreement with the creditor before your court date.
No business relationship exists with the debt collector. This might work if the debt collector has acted improperly or failed to validate the debt.
You have filed for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy forces most collection efforts to stop. It’s called an “automatic stay.”
Court officers didn't serve you properly. You must be properly served and be aware of the lawsuit for it to be valid.
You don't owe the money because you’re an authorized user on a credit card. Only the account holder is responsible for paying the balance.
The debt collector changed the balance. By law, debt collectors cannot collect more than the original balance owed without your agreement.
Even when it’s not worth hiring an attorney because the amount involved is less than an attorney’s fee, you might want to book a free consultation with a lawyer. Many offer a free half hour to discuss your options and they might spot something helpful to you.
Answering the complaint: fill out the form correctly
In addition to listing any affirmative defenses, you must respond to each allegation in the complaint. You’ll simply work through each section of the complaint and indicate whether you admit to the allegation, deny it, lack the knowledge to answer, or admit to part and deny the rest. It’s important that you admit anything you know to be true because getting caught in a lie can result in having to pay the plaintiff’s court costs.
For example, paragraph one might read, “Defendants are residents of Nevada and can be served at 123 Main Street, Reno, NV 89501.” If that’s your address, you’d just respond “Admitted.”
What if paragraph two reads, “Defendants owe $2,433 for good and services charged in addition to $256 for collection costs”?
If you don’t know that’s exactly true, you can respond, “I lack knowledge to admit or deny Plaintiff’s allegation and therefore deny the allegation.” If you know that you didn’t run up those charges, you can respond, “Denied.” And if you agree to the $2,433 but not the collection costs, you might respond, “I admit to owing the $2,433 balance and deny owing collection costs.”
File your answer on time
Missing a filing deadline can have serious consequences, so don’t overlook this step. You need to sign, file, and serve your answer on time.
The summons tells you how many calendar days you have to file your response with the court. Your deadline is calculated in calendar days, not business days. The number of days you get to respond varies by location, so look at your summons to see how many days you’re allowed.
Suppose your summons says you get 30 days. Check your calendar and put your finger on the date when the papers were handed to you. That is day zero. Move your finger to the next date, and say “one.” Do this until you get to day thirty, and your finger will now be pointing to the last date on which you can safely file your response with the court. Of course, sooner is always safer when filing court documents.
Print out your answer, sign it, and make two copies.
File the original in person at the court where the lawsuit was filed. The address should be on your summons. Hand the clerk the original. There will be a date-stamp on the clerk’s desk or near it so that you can stamp the other two copies. This gives you a record of when you filed your answer.
Next, mail one of the date-stamped copies to the plaintiff’s attorney. The name and address should be on the front of the summons. You must send it by certified mail.
Then you’ll go back to the court and file a certificate of service. This document means you are swearing to the court that you served your answer to the plaintiff. It should say “Certificate of Service” at the top. The court will provide this form for you to fill out.
Keep the last date-stamped copy for your files and know that you just prevented a default judgment against you.
Your debt collector knows now that you’re going to fight. This may make them more willing to work out a settlement or payment plan with you.
Steps to take if you owe the credit card or collection agency money
Okay, you’ve avoided a default judgment by filing your answer, as long as you show up to court or resolve the debt with the plaintiff before your court date. But what if you have no solid affirmative defenses and you definitely owe the money? Are you doomed?
Not necessarily. It isn’t cheap to pay an attorney to sue you, and your creditor doesn’t know if you can pay anything. You might just file bankruptcy and leave them with nothing but wasted court costs. It also knows that collecting a judgment can be harder and even more expensive than getting one. So you might have some leverage.
Your options are:
Pay in full if you can
Negotiate a smaller sum as payment-in-full
Negotiate a payment plan
Take a good look at your finances and write down what you can afford for each option.
If the amounts are very large, consider hiring an attorney to help you settle your debt or perhaps file bankruptcy. You could also enlist the help of a debt settlementcompany staffed by experienced negotiators to help you work out an arrangement. Typically, attorneys work for flat fees or by the hour, while debt settlement companies take a percentage of the amount of debt you owe the creditor.
If you’re confident in your negotiating skills, you can always contact the plaintiff yourself and ask for a lower payoff or a payment plan. If you have a hardship that makes the debt unaffordable, document it and politely request help.