What to Do When You Are Served with Small Claims Papers - dummies

What to Do When You Are Served with Small Claims Papers

By Judge Philip Straniere

If you’re the defendant, it’s wise to read all the advice given to the plaintiff, so you understand how small claims court works. Knowing what the opposition is up to may also give you some ideas on how to defend your case. At minimum, keep the following in mind:

  • Rule #1: Never ignore a summons and complaint!

  • Rule #2: There is no Rule #2. And Rule #1 applies to all court proceedings, not just small claims court.

Legal papers can be delivered to you in a number of ways; you may receive a summons and complaint via    

  • Actual in-hand delivery

  • Delivery to a person where you live or work

  • Affixing them to the door of where you live

  • In the mail, the most common delivery method in small claims court

The law only requires that the method used to serve papers is reasonably likely to get them to you. It doesn’t require verification that you actually received the complaint or that you thought it was delivered in a reasonable way.

Ignore a summons at your peril

If you get served with any legal documents do not — do not — ignore them.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve never heard of the person suing you. It doesn’t matter that you never had any contact with the plaintiff. It doesn’t matter that you have no idea who in the world the plaintiff is.

Don’t think that you can decide that because the papers weren’t properly served, you can ignore them. Only the court can determine if the summons and complaint was served in accordance with the law.

At the time you receive the summons and complaint, make a note somewhere of how you received it and document the event in your records. If the issue of service comes up, it will be helpful if you can show you actually were in Timbuktu at the time the process server claims she was handing the papers to you on your front step.

Because plaintiffs sometimes wait awhile before suing, and people tend to move, if you claim you no longer live at the address where the plaintiff alleges you were served at, it helps if you come to court with a copy of your new lease or a utility bill showing where you really lived on the date of service.

If you ignore legal papers you receive, a default judgment will be entered against you. This is not a good thing. It may sit on the court records for years, but eventually you will find out about it, and usually at the worst possible time.

You go to borrow money or rent an apartment and a judgment shows up on your credit report. Your bank account will be restrained. Your wages will be garnished. You then have to run around trying to resolve a case that’s several years old.

Certified mail refusal isn’t a good strategy

Most states permit serving a small claims summons and complaint by mail. A summons usually arrives via certified mail return receipt or some other method that requires you to sign for it.

Don’t think you can avoid dealing with a summons by not accepting it. Unclaimed certified mail often doesn’t get returned to the courthouse until sometime after the scheduled court appearance date. So if you don’t pick up the certified mail, it’s possible the court will hear the case without you being there to tell your side of the story, and a default judgment will be entered against you.

Unclaimed means service was attempted and you never contacted the post office to pick up the mail. Undeliverable or similar notations means that the plaintiff did not have an accurate address and therefore it was impossible for you to get the notice.

How to read the plaintiff’s documents

The documents used in a lawsuit are called pleadings. Every lawsuit begins with two pleadings — the summons and the complaint:

  • The summons is the notice the court issues; it doesn’t come directly from the person suing you. It basically says, “You’re being sued.” The summons tells you when you have to respond by.

    The summons should also tell you how you have to respond — in person or in writing. If you don’t understand what to do, the best thing to do is show up at court as soon as you get the summons and ask the clerk what you have to do or stop in at the help center if your court has one.

    Your response is called an answer. You either have to file your answer with the court by a particular date or show up at the courthouse on a particular date and present your response to the court at trial.

  • The complaint is the plaintiff’s statement as to why she’s suing you. In small claims cases it should be short, usually just a single sentence, but specific enough for you to prepare to respond to it.


If you get served a summons, your first reaction may be to tear it up, which you know not to do. A second option may be to shave your head, start wearing a Groucho nose and glasses, and leave town on a freight train, but this isn’t wise either. A third equally unwise option is to storm the clerk’s office in a rage and threaten to feed the summons to the clerk one letter at a time.

A more sensible alternative is to call up the plaintiff, settle the problem out of court, and go back to your normal life. Settlement means trying to resolve the matter amicably without going to court.

Write it down! It’s not that you shouldn’t trust each other to act in good faith, but by writing everything down you both know what you’ve agreed to, when things are going to get done, and who’s paying for what.