7 Tips for Success in Small Claims Court

Small Claims Court Hearing Document
••• KLH49 / Getty Images

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.

Small claims courts may only be used if the claim is under a specific dollar amount, which varies by state. Amounts owed in excess of this limit must be taken to other courts or taken to arbitration. To find the dollar limit in your state, search on "small claims [state name]."

Learn the Process in Your State

Generally, the small claims process works the same in every state, although the specific terms may change:

  • A plaintiff (claimant) files a statement of claim to the court and pays filing fees.
  • The defendant (person being sued) receives a summons, an order to appear in court at a specific day and time.
  • Defendants may file counterclaims.
  • At the hearing, both parties present their case, and the small claims judge issues a judgment (legal opinion).

Before You File a Claim

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 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

Get your records together to prove the amount due and make sure this amount falls within the limit for your state.

Then keep track of accounts receivable by running accounts receivable aging reports regularly, so you don't allow a customer to exceed this limit.

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.

Photos with dates are worth a thousand words each in a lawsuit, especially before and after pictures They can help you prove that the work was completed and done correctly.

Find Witnesses

Make sure witnesses 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, ask the court to issue a subpoena.

Most Important, Show up for the Trial 

It is the best way to ensure your success in getting your claim paid. You would be surprised how many defendants 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. It 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 a 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. In Florida, for example, you may be able to get the sheriff in your county to seize property, (usually not the person's home) to pay off creditors.

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.