7 Tips for Success in Small Claims Court
Small claims court is designed to help small business owners and individual citizens take a simple, small dollar amount case to court without having to pay costly legal fees and high court costs. While the small claims court process may be easy, getting the money if you win the judgment is not always a sure thing.
Here are some tips to help you win your case and get paid for your claim.
Learn the Process in Your State
Be sure you know the dollar limit for small claims actions in your state. In most states, there is a limit on the amount of debt owed that can be taken to small claims court. Amounts owed in excess of this limit must be taken to other courts or taken to arbitration. Search on your state name and "small claims limit" to find this amount.
Then keep track of accounts receivable by running an accounts receivable aging report regularly so you don't allow a customer to exceed this limit.
Learn About the Defendant
Get all the relevant information about the defendant, like addresses, phone numbers, business type, and trade names. If you have previous addresses or phone numbers, or other contact information, include that too. The court must have some way to find the person in order to serve them with a summons. If the court can't find the defendant, the person can't be served against by an agent of the court, nor can you get any money from them.
Keep Excellent Records
The key to winning in small claims court is usually good records. If you can prove that (a) the customer ordered the work or agreed to buy the product, and (b) that you delivered on the work or the product, you have a pretty strong case.
Be Prepared for the Counter-Argument
In many cases, the customer will try to claim that the work wasn't done properly or as agreed to. That's where your great records will show that you did the work or delivered the product as specified. You do not have to prove that the work was perfect, just that it was done as agreed to. In my friend's case, the floor was installed as the customer specified; if she didn't like it, that isn't his company's fault, and she still must pay.
They really are worth a thousand words, in a lawsuit. They can help you prove that the work was completed, or that the flooring was installed correctly.
Make sure they are credible and that they stick to the subject at hand. Your mother telling the judge what a wonderful person you are won't help your case, but an employee talking about how he installs flooring will certainly help. If a witness is reluctant to appear, get the court to issue a subpoena.
Most Important, Show up for the Trial
This is the best way to ensure your success in getting your claim paid. You would be surprised how many defendants just don't appear for small claims court. In these cases, the judge almost always awards you (the plaintiff) the judgment.
But if you set a case in motion and you don't show up, you just wasted your money. And don't just show up - be dressed for success and know how to act in court. This goes a long way with judges.
Follow up After You Get a Judgment
Finally, be prepared to follow up to be sure you receive the amounts owed. Getting a judgment from small claims court doesn't mean you will be paid. You may have to get a lien on the debtor's property or a garnishment of wages. Read more about options for collecting your small claims judgment.
Of course, there is never a guarantee of winning a lawsuit and getting the money you are owed. After all, if the person had the money, they wouldn't be in this situation in the first place. But using these tips should increase your chances of that win and payment.