All About Small Claims Court

When someone says, "I will take you to court," they probably mean small claims court. And, yes, Judge Judy and the People's Court are examples of this type of court, although most judges aren't as flamboyant.

Before you file a case against someone -- or if you receive a summons to appear in court -- understand exactly what happens in small claims court. You should understand the legal process, including where to file the claim, what to do if you win or lose, and how to get the money if your case is successful.

The Small Claims Court Process - An Overview

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Any individual or business can take another individual or business to small claims court if the amount of money in dispute is under a certain limit. This threshold varies by state, ranging from as much as $15,000 in Georgia down to as little as $2,500 in Kentucky.

No attorney is needed to take a claim to small claims court. you just show up with your evidence on the date of the hearing. You typically have a right to representation by a lawyer, but some states require that you appear on your own, including Michigan, Nebraska, and California. 

How to File a Claim in Small Claims Court

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Filing a claim in small claims court is designed to be an easy process. Go to your county's civil courthouse and talk to the clerk of the court there. Many courts offer document forms that you can fill out with information specific to your case and file -- usually a complaint and a summons. A filing fee is usually required.

Ask the clerk how your state requires you to make service on the defendant -- the individual or entity you are suing. By law, the defendant must receive a copy of your lawsuit so they can defend themselves. You may be able to send them a copy by certified mail, or you may have to arrange for the county sheriff or constable to hand-deliver a copy to the defendant.  

How to Prepare for Court

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Whether you're the plaintiff bringing the lawsuit or the defendant in a small claims action, you must show up in court to have your side of the case heard. If you don't appear, the judge will almost certainly rule against you. When you file your complaint, the clerk will write the date of the hearing on the paperwork. Be prepared to appear with witnesses and supporting documents to prove your case. Your preparation can mean the difference between success and failure in the lawsuit.

How to Act and Dress

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A court is a special place filled with tradition and protocol, and your behavior and appearance can affect the outcome of your lawsuit. The key word here is "respect." Don't interrupt the judge or the other party. Answer questions aloud -- don't just nod or shake your head. Don't raise your voice. Take a deep breath and pause for a moment if you feel like you're losing your temper. Dress appropriately -- no sneakers, shorts, jeans or T-shirts. 

How to Collect Your Money if You Win

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If you lose in small claims court, you can usually file an appeal. Keep in mind, however, that an appeal isn't just a chance to present the same case all over again. You must offer new information or evidence to support your claim that the judge ruled in error. 

The judge will issue a judgment in your favor if you win. Now you have to collect that money from someone who will probably not be willing to pay you. Ask about the possibility of a wage garnishment or a lien against the defendant's personal property. You'll have to take steps to arrange for these things yourself -- the court can't do it for you. But the judge can give you an order authorizing these collection methods if you ask.

Finally, Be Prepared for Anything

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When you take someone to court, you may have expectations about how the process will go. Most of our expectations come from TV shows like The People's Court, and Law and Order. But real courtrooms aren't like that. You may think you have a good case, but anything can happen - and often does. You may want to make a point, but small claims court isn't about punishing people or making points - it's about the facts of who owes what to whom. Being realistic about your expectations can help you get through the process without tearing your hair out.