How Much Does It Cost?
Fees for filing a case in small claims court are very moderate—usually not much more than $75. In some states, people with very low incomes can ask to have court filing fees waived. Normally, a defendant doesn’t have to pay anything unless the defendant files a claim against the plaintiff (often called a counterclaim). There is usually an additional fee for serving papers on the opposing party, unless you are in a state that allows personal service to be carried out by a nonprofessional process server and you have a friend who will do it for you without charge. Most states allow service by certified or registered mail, which doesn’t cost much. In a few situations, you may have to hire a professional process server. How much this costs will depend partly on how hard it is to find the person you need to serve. You can get your filing fees and service costs added to the court judgment if you win.
Filing Your Lawsuit
Now let’s look at how you obtain and fill out the papers you need to start your lawsuit. To get started, check your state’s small claims court information website. You should be able to get the information and forms you need to begin your lawsuit online, including a formal demand letter. If you get the forms from your state’s website, you will also need to check whether the county or court where you plan to file has additional forms or requirements for filing a small claims court action (some do). You can also visit or call the small claims court where you plan to file your lawsuit.
To start your case, you will have to file a complaint or claim. This form is often called a plaintiff’s statement, general claim, or plaintiff’s claim. Most states have forms and free self-help information on their small claims court website. You can also get the forms from the court where you will be filing your lawsuit. If you do it this way, you will likely receive a package with all the forms you need and instructions for filling out the forms and filing your papers.
In most cases, you will need to provide the following information to
complete your complaint or claim:
• your full name, address, and telephone number
• the correct name and address of the person or persons you are suing (including whether this is an individual, partnership, sole proprietor, limited liability company, or corporation)
• the amount of your claim
• the reason the defendant owes you money, and
• whether you have any other claims against that person or other small claims cases.
Other information may be required as well. Follow the instructions on your forms and if you still have questions, ask your local small claims court clerk for help. In most states, small claims clerks are required to help people fill out these forms.
You will need to check the rules of the court where you are filing your case and follow those procedures for filing your papers and paying your filing fee. In most jurisdictions, you can file your papers in person or by mail. You’ll need to file the original signed document and required number of copies with the court. Some courts allow electronic filing (eFiling) for small claims cases, either by the plaintiff directly or through an approved online service provider; eFiling is becoming more widely used for small claims and is even required in some jurisdictions. Be sure to check and follow the rules for the court where you plan to file your case.
You will also need to pay the court a filing fee. If you can’t afford the fee, you may be able to have it waived. Check with your local court for rules on waiving this fee.
In most small claims courts, you don’t need to provide written evidence until you get to court. Some small claims courts, however—such as those in Washington, DC—require that certain types of evidence (such as copies of unpaid bills, contracts, or other documents on which the claim is based) be provided at the time you file your first papers.
Whether or not your state’s rules require written documentation of certain types of claims, it is wise to spend a little time thinking about how you will prove your case. You should read ahead and figure out exactly what proof you will need and how you will present it before you file your first court papers. Being right is one thing—proving it is another.
The Defendant’s Forms
In most states, a defendant doesn’t have to file any papers to defend a case in small claims court unless the defendant wants the case transferred to formal court. However, in a few states, a defendant must respond in writing. (See the appendix for your state’s rules.) In the majority of states, defendants simply show up for the hearing on the date and at the time indicated on the papers served on them, ready to tell their side of the story. (If you need to get the hearing delayed, see “Your Court Date,” below.) It is proper, and advisable, for a defendant to call or write the plaintiff and see whether a fair settlement can be reached without going to court, or to propose mediation.
Sometimes a party you planned to sue sues you first (for example, over a traffic accident where you each believe the other is at fault). As long as your grievance stems from the same incident, you can file a defendant’s claim (sometimes called a counterclaim) for up to the small claims court maximum and have it heard by a judge at the same time that the plaintiff’s claim against you is considered. However, if you believe that the plaintiff owes you money as the result of a different injury or breach of contract, you may have to file your own separate case.
In all states you must file any defendant’s claim (counterclaim) in writing within a certain time period after being served with the plaintiff’s claim (usually ten to 30 days). When you file a defendant’s claim, you become a plaintiff as far as this claim is concerned. In those states where only the defendant can appeal, this means that if you lose your defendant’s claim, you can’t appeal that part of the case. Of course, even in these states, if you lose on the original plaintiff’s claim, you can normally appeal that portion of the judgment. Appeal rules vary from state to state and can be complicated.
In most states, if a defendant’s claim is for more than the small claims maximum, the case will be transferred to a formal court. Some states allow transfers only at the discretion of a judge, who may inquire whether the defendant’s claim is made in good faith. A defendant who does not want to cope with the procedures of formal court may be wise to scale down the claim to fit under the small claims limit.