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Cheat Sheet

Filing & Winning Small Claims For Dummies

From Filing and Winning Small Claims For Dummies by Judge Philip Straniere

Although the television court shows may be comical, filing a small claim is no laughing matter. There are many things to do, know, and consider before you file, before you go to court, and before your case has been heard and judgment delivered. It is also important that you know what the rules for small claims court are in your particular state.

Eight Important Things to Do before Filing for Court

"I'll see you in court!" It feels good to say sometimes when you're angry, but before you go filing your claim, here are some things you should consider:

  1. Before you file your claim, take time to think about the situation and cool off.

    Maybe the other guy isn't really at fault or the problem isn't as big as you first thought.

  2. Explore other options for resolving your dispute.

    Approaching a situation with a reasonable attitude can often defuse the conflict and keep you out of court. This is particularly true when the person you are thinking of suing is someone you know well.

  3. Think about having a third party intervene to resolve the dispute.

    Consider asking a mutual acquaintance or using a mediator.

  4. Consult with a lawyer to ensure you have a good case and one that is fitting for small claims court.

    If you can't afford or find a lawyer, contact your small claims court to find out its rules and whether your case is one that can be heard there.

  5. Find out where you must file your paperwork; that is, choose the correct location for your suit.

    Be sure you fill out all the necessary forms correctly. Having to redo any of this is costly and time-consuming.

  6. Sit down and think about what kind of case you have.

    Is it a contract breach? Property damage? This will help you fill out your forms correctly in the court.

  7. Gather your facts about the defendant.

    Know the legal name and address of the person or business you want to sue.

  8. Be polite when dealing with the clerk.

    Clerks are there to help you, and they will if you are nice.

Eight Considerations to Make before Going to Court

Before your big court date, it is especially important that you be prepared and come across as polite, respectful, organized, and armed with the documents you need.

  1. Have a solid idea of what category of case you have.

    Proving a breach of contract case is a lot different than proving a property damage case.

  2. Visit the court a few times before the day of your trial.

    Check out how the cases are called and how the judge handles the trials.

  3. Dress like this is an important event in your life.

    Look respectable, be polite, and treat your opponent and the court staff respectfully.

  4. Make a checklist of what you want to prove.

    Then make sure you have some way to prove the point you want to make whether it is by a live witness or by some documents.

  5. Be prepared with your documentation.

    Make sure you don't need records or documents that some third person has; if you have to get them, you may need a subpoena.

  6. Have your facts straight.

    If the defendant filed a counterclaim, be prepared to respond to that with facts.

  7. Don't get angry with your opponent and especially not with the judge.

    Listen to what is going on and don't talk for the sake of talking. If the other side has a lawyer, try not to let her throw you off from your prepared game plan.

  8. Don't ask a witness a question unless you're pretty sure what the answer will be.

    Getting an unexpected answer can doom your case.

Eight Key Things to Think About after You've Been to Court

When the arguments have been made and countered and the judge has had time to mull over the evidence and statements given in court, it will be time to hear judgment. Here's what you need to consider after your trial.

  1. Be prepared to lose.

    There are lots of reasons why cases are lost; two of the biggest reasons are not being prepared for the trial and not understanding the legal and factual issues involved. But no matter how well you prepare, you still can lose.

  2. Check out the rules concerning appealing a decision before you start your trial.

    This way, if you lose, you can act quickly to appeal, and if you win you can be ready to defend your position should the defendant appeal.

  3. Think about how you will collect if you win.

    Getting a judgment and getting paid are two different things. If you've done your homework, you will have information on the defendant's assets, such as keeping copies of checks from the defendant so you can locate a bank account or even just knowing where the defendant works.

  4. Consider entering into a payment plan with the defendant.

    Is it better to take less money immediately or to chase the defendant to be paid? It's your choice.

  5. Don't ignore any notices from the court any time you get one.

    Even after the trial, the other side can apply to the court for some relief such as a new trial. Actually, not ignoring notices from any court at any time is a rule to follow.

  6. Be prepared to wait a long time to be paid; this is not unusual in small claims cases.

    Recognize that, for the most part, the court doesn't collect the money for you; it's up to you to enforce any judgment you get.

  7. Be open to a learning experience.

    If you lose, it could well be that you didn't have a great case, or that you just weren't prepared enough to prove it. Either way, take what you can from the experience.

  8. Don't take a loss personally.

    The judge really doesn't hate you.

Small Claims Rules in Each State

There are 51 different small claims courts in the United States, one for each state and the District of Columbia. The law is different in each and may even vary in different parts of the same state. In fact, each state or county defines for itself what qualifies as "small claims."

Providing a list of every website that can give you the information you need for your particular state is difficult and fruitless; new sites pop up all the time, and older sites are not always updated regularly. Rather than risk pointing you to outdated information, here are some pointers for finding the most up-to-date rules and other information regarding small claims in your state:

  • Search online for your state or city name plus the words "small claims court." For example, you might search for "Springfield Illinois Small Claims Court".

    Always look for official websites run by the court system or a government agency. These URLs generally end with .gov or .org. If you can't find such a site for your state, don't assume the site of another state will answer your questions. Remember, every state is different.

  • Look for a site maintained by a bar association or some advocacy group.

    Avoid websites that are maintained by attorneys or that refer you to specific lawyers. These sites may be useful to read, but be aware that the people running them are looking to represent you. Remember, not every state allows a lawyer in small claims court, so you may not even need or be able to use one.

  • Check out some general websites that provide information about each state's small claims court:

As with any other Internet source, the information is only as good as the person posting it. Make sure it's updated, and remember to always check directly with your local court before you begin pursuing your claim.

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