The Process of Taking a Debtor to Small Claims Court

The small claims process begins with filing complaints and forms.
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At some time in your business life, someone will probably owe you money. Maybe you have run through the collections process and you still haven't received payment. You may decide that the only way to get this money is to take the person to small claims court.

Taking Someone to Small Claims Court

Small claims court is a specific kind of court that hears cases between two parties without the need for lengthy and expensive lawsuits. You can take a case to a small claims court without the expense of an attorney. But going to small claims court means you must file your case and defend it by yourself. It's made to be an easy process, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare carefully and follow the process exactly.

The process of taking someone to small claims court is designed to be easy for anyone and to avoid having to pay attorney fees. It is possible for you to file the paperwork and receive a judgment for little cost in terms of money and time.

Check the Small Claims Maximum in Your State

You can only use small claims court if the debt is below a specific amount. The small claims maximum is different for each state. Check the small claims court limit for your state (search on "small claims" and your state name) before you begin the process of taking someone to court. 

Finding and Naming the Defendant

The small claims process works best when the debtor is local and easily contacted. You must first find your defendant and include the correct name and address on the lawsuit.

Naming the defendant means figuring out if the defendant is an individual person, a business, or both. For businesses, you'll have to find the owners, and the registered agent (the person responsible for accepting legal papers for the company.

To find an individual person, you can look for a phone number or social media account. You could also check to see if they own property. To find a business, check to see if their business is registered with the state (usually the Secretary of State's office).

Consider carefully whether you want to do business with this person or company in the future. Taking someone to court, even small claims court, means you are probably severing the relationship. You may want to consider other alternatives to small claims court.

Filing and Serving Your Complaint

The small claims process begins when you file a complaint with your county court. You can get the paperwork and fill out the necessary forms yourself. You will need to pay for the filing and also for an officer of the court to serve a summons on the other party in the case. This document is called different things in different courts; it could be called a "Plaintiff's Claim and Order." Some courts allow you to file online.

"Serving the complaint" means giving notice to the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed against them. Small claims courts usually charge for this service. You could serve the summons yourself, but it's usually best to let the court do it, to be sure it's done legally and that there is a receipt showing it's been served.

The court then sets a date for the case to be heard in small claims court.

Preparing Your Case

Preparing your case means gathering documents you need to prove (a) that you did the work or delivered the product the customer ordered and (b) that the customer did not pay. You may also want to bring proof that you attempted to collect this money by other means before resorting to small claims court. 

Presenting Your Case

Come to the court on the appointed day and time to present your case. Be sure to bring all the documentation that shows that you did the work or sold the product to the customer, including any agreements, invoices, or sales receipts signed by the customer.

If you have the proper documents, the court will often award you the judgment (the decision of the court) unless there is some compelling reason why the defendant should not have to pay. The judgment means that the court is ordering the customer to pay you the amount that is due.

Collecting on a Judgment

Just because the court has awarded you the judgment, it doesn't mean that the person will pay. Success in small claims court means that you successfully collect the money that is due to you.

To do that, you may have to go back to court to get a lien on the person's property or to order a wage garnishment. The court won't automatically pursue payment; you must initiate the action.

Consider accepting a credit card (if you think the person's credit is good) or try to work out payment terms (sometimes called vendor credit).

Alternatives to Small Claims Court

If the amount owed you is higher than the small claims court process, you can still take the person to court, but you'll have to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit. This means much time and attorney fees and court costs so it may not be worth it.

You might also want to consider mediation, which brings parties together more informally under the guidance of a mediator to see if they can reach a compromise. Mediation is non-binding so it may not be the best way to get your money.

Article Sources

  1. California Courts. "Figure Out How to Name the Defendant." Accessed Sept. 6, 2020.

  2. NYCourts.gov. "Starting a Case." Accessed Sept. 6, 2020.

  3. Los Angeles County Bar Association. "Serving the Complaint (PDF)." Accessed Sept. 6, 2020.