Getting served with a debt-collection lawsuit is one of the more upsetting things that can happen to you. When a process server hands a summons and complaint to you or to someone “of suitable age and discretion” who answers your door, it means a debt collector is dragging you into the legal system.
But really, it is not as bad as all that. Let’s take a look at the first few parts of a lawsuit to try to dispel the fear and misunderstanding.
Getting “served” just means that you have been given notice of the lawsuit by a debt collector. You are served if you are handed a copy of the summons and complaint or if a summons and complaint is given to someone “of suitable age and discretion” at your home.
The summons and complaint — “process” in legal jargon — are a statement of the claims against you and a notice of the lawsuit. In Minnesota, at least, the lawsuit starts whether or not it is filed with the court.
This is important: YOU MUST ANSWER THE COMPLAINT.
Answering the Debt Collector’s Complaint
An answer is a formal, legal document. A civil lawsuit is not a criminal lawsuit. There is no court date, yet; there is just a due date. You have 20 days to serve an answer to the complaint. Serving, in this case, means mailing the answer to the opposing party’s attorney, and executing an affidavit of service when you do this.
In an answer, you must respond to each allegation (usually numbered paragraphs) in the complaint. Be careful not to admit anything that you do not know for a fact to be true. For example, in a debt collection case, if you do not know what your account number was you cannot admit that you owe on an account with a specified number. Instead, you have to state that you do not know, and deny it. However, if you still have your credit card or statements, and they show the same account number, you may have to admit this.
Also be careful if you see more than one allegation in a sentence or paragraph. For example, the allegation “Defendant owes Plaintiff $1,400 on a Providian credit card, account number 1234 2345 3456 4567” contains several allegations: (1) Defendant owes Plaintiff $1,400; (2) for a Providian credit card; (3) with the specified account number. You can probably find some more allegations in there, as well.
This is why having an attorney can be very helpful.
What to Do Next
A lawsuit is like a game of ping pong. Or tennis. Or volleyball. Or whatever. There is a constant volley back and forth. The plaintiff serves the summons and complaint, then the defendant must answer. Either party may start the next step by filing the lawsuit or serving discovery, to which the other party must respond. And so on.
Answering a lawsuit does not end the lawsuit. It just moves it to the next step. If you decide to represent yourself, you must stay on top of your lawsuit. If you do not know what to do next, you should probably hire a lawyer.
Most anyone can handle the early stages of a lawsuit, but if they are not handled well, they can make it impossible to prevail later on. When it comes to the later steps of a lawsuit, it can be very difficult to explain how to handle them yourself, but if you spend some time reading the rules and the law, you might be able to be your own “closer.”
The best course is to hire a consumer rights lawyer. If you don’t think you can afford one, call one anyway. You may be surprised. Many lawyers can help you with unbundled services, where you pay only for the help you need.
Originally published 2009-08-04. Last updated 2015-09-25.