What To Do If You’re Being Sued For Debt

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Updated on Tuesday, November 6, 2018

debt lawsuit

If you’ve stopped making payments on a debt, and it’s been in collections for a while — and especially if you’ve been avoiding the debt collector’s attempts to contact you — it’s possible that you may get sued for that debt.

Not all unpaid debts will end in a lawsuit. Debt collectors are able to continue collection actions indefinitely, and only in certain cases will a lawsuit ever materialize.

“It’s always going to be a cost-benefit analysis by the creditor,” said Ed Boltz, a consumer debtor’s attorney in North Carolina. “The bigger the debt, the more likely it is that you’ll be sued. And when you owe money to an individual or small business, you are far more likely to be sued because they tend to take that debt personally.”

Being sued for debt can be a scary and intimidating process, but this article will help you understand how it works and what you can do to contest the charges.

What happens when you’re sued for debt

One of the keys to successfully challenging a lawsuit is simply understanding how the process works so that you know what to expect and how to respond.

The bad news is that you’ll have to do some leg work to get up to speed on the particulars for your state, as the specifics vary based on where you live.

“The details depend tremendously on what state you’re in,” said Boltz. “The process in North Carolina is different than the process in South Carolina, which is different than it is in California.”

The good news is that there are a few general steps that apply to most situations.

Timeline: When you’re sued for debt

What happens

What it means

Creditor files a complaint with the court

This officially begins the lawsuit. The complaint explains the charges against you.

You receive a summons and the complaint

The summons provides a deadline for your response.

You file an answer

This begins your defense and avoids a default judgment against you.

There is a trial or the case is dropped

The creditor can either drop the lawsuit or it will go to trial, typically in small claims court.

A judgment is made

The judge makes a decision, which will either relieve your responsibility or allow the creditor to begin collection actions.

Creditor files a complaint with the court

The lawsuit starts when the creditor files a complaint, typically in state court.

“Credit card debt, medical bills, those sorts of debt are sued in state courts,” said Boltz. “People are very rarely sued for debt in federal court.”

The complaint primarily explains who the creditor is suing, what debt they’re suing for, and how much they think you owe.

You receive a summons and the complaint

Once the complaint is filed, you’ll receive both the complaint and a summons that typically requires you to respond within 30 days. According to Boltz, these are usually mailed to you, though they can sometimes be delivered by a law enforcement officer or process server.

Boltz also warned that trying to avoid the delivery of these notices is a bad idea.

“A lot of people, if they’re sent the summons by certified mail, will attempt to ignore it and refuse to accept their mail,” said Boltz. “But all that ends up happening is that they have to get service to you through some other means, whether that means sending someone to your home or work or even putting it in the newspaper, all of which can be even more embarrassing.”

You file an answer

Once you receive the summons, Boltz said, you typically have 30 days to file an answer with the option to request an extension for another 30 days.

You will now have your chance to respond to the creditor’s claims and begin mounting a defense, and it’s at this point that Boltz recommends consulting with an attorney.

“The first thing you should do when you’re sued is go talk to a lawyer,” said Boltz. “That’s the best way to find out what your rights are and whether you have valid defenses against that lawsuit.”

It’s important to understand that even if you don’t have a good defense, it’s still important to file a timely answer. Refusing to answer will typically lead to a default judgment in favor of the creditor, at which point they may be able to garnish your wages, place a lien on your property or freeze your bank account in order to collect on the debt.

“The bottom line is that you can’t hide from the problem,” said Boltz. “The best thing to do is address it.”

There is a trial or the case is dropped

Once you file an answer, there’s a chance that the creditor may simply drop the lawsuit.

“It’s possible that the creditor will dismiss the lawsuit and decide not to proceed,” said Boltz. “They may do the cost-benefit analysis and decide that it’s not worth moving forward.”

Of course, they might not drop the lawsuit, and the case will go to trial. Boltz explained that most suits are handled in small claims court and follow a relatively standard procedure:

  1. The plaintiff (i.e. the creditor) presents their evidence.
  2. You are allowed to cross examine any witnesses they call.
  3. You present your evidence to either show that the debt is not yours, the amount is not correct, the statute of limitations has passed or any other defense.
  4. The plaintiff is allowed to cross examine your witnesses.
  5. Each side presents its closing argument.

A judgement is made

Once each side has made their closing argument, the judge — or, in rare cases, the jury — makes a decision and hands down a judgment.

If you win the judgment, by law you are no longer responsible for that debt. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that you’re 100% in the clear in terms of dealing with collection activities.

“The problem with debt collection is that often that debt will be sold to another debt collector who may or may not know that you’ve won that lawsuit,” said Boltz. “They may try to collect on it again, but at that point they’ve clearly violated the law, and you may be able to countersue and get some damages from them.”

If you lose the judgment, the creditor will have the right to begin collection actions against you. Depending on the state in which you live, that could include garnishing your wages, placing a lien on your home or other real property and even garnishing funds or freezing your bank account.

According to Boltz, judgments are good for 10 years and can be extended for another 10 years, and any unpaid amounts will sit there and accrue interest. So even if your home doesn’t currently have enough equity to cover your debt, the creditor can place a lien on your home, wait it out, and eventually either force you to sell once you do have enough equity, or demand repayment when you decide to sell it yourself or refinance your mortgage.

5 steps to take when you’re sued for debt

With that much on the line, what can you do to give yourself the best chance to win the lawsuit and avoid those collection actions?

Here are five steps you should take if you’re sued for debt.

1. Read the summons and complaint

First things first: Accept delivery of the summons and complaint and read them both thoroughly. Ignoring them will only lead to a default judgment against you, while reading and understanding them will help you meet deadlines and mount a convincing defense.

“When you get those papers, make sure you read them,” said Boltz. “Hiding from them doesn’t do you any good and is only likely to make you owe more money later on.”

Here are some important questions to ask as you read them over:

  • Who is suing you?
  • What is the debt they are suing you for?
  • How much are they claiming you owe?
  • Where has the suit been filed?
  • What is your deadline for filing an answer?
  • Where does that answer need to be filed?

2. Review your documentation

Once you know what your creditor’s suing you for, you can review your own documentation about that debt.

You may find that it’s not actually your debt, in which case you have a strong defense. And even if it is your debt, any information you have about when you took it out, payments you made and balances you owed will be helpful.

3. Consult an attorney

According to Boltz, hiring an attorney will give you the best chance to successfully challenge the lawsuit by making sure that you explore all possible angles.

“There are all kinds of valid defenses, from something as basic as ‘This isn’t my debt’ to something more complicated, like an application of the statute of limitations,” said Boltz. “A lawyer may also be able to find out that some of the ways in which the debt collection and the lawsuit were done were wrong, and you may have counterclaims against them.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggests trying to find legal aid in your area, so be sure to look into opportunities to obtain free legal advice.

4. File an answer

No matter what, you want to file an answer by the deadline indicated on your summons. This allows you to avoid default judgment and gives you the chance to challenge the lawsuit in front of a judge.

5. Show up to court

Finally, if the lawsuit is brought to court, you need to show up and present your defense, no matter what. Again, showing up is the only chance you have to defend against the lawsuit and avoid a default judgment — so it’s an important step, even if you think your odds are low.

What to do if you’re held responsible for the debt

“If you get a judgment against you, you need to figure out how you’re going to pay it,” said Boltz. “Whether that’s by repaying it, negotiating a settlement, refinancing your home or filing bankruptcy.”

If you find yourself in this situation, check out some of MagnifyMoney’s free resources to help you evaluate your repayment options, including a guide to debt repayment, an overview of debt consolidation options and tips on how to negotiate a settlement on credit card debt.

In some cases, bankruptcy may even be the right move.

“If this is one part of a larger financial problem, bankruptcy may be the better financial option because it wipes the slate clean,” said Boltz.

And just as with the initial lawsuit, it’s important not to ignore the debt or simply refuse to repay it.

“If you don’t pay it, it will sit on your credit report for 10 years, and if they renew it, it counts as another lawsuit for another 10 years,” said Boltz. “You’re taking a beating on your credit report that in many ways is worse than a bankruptcy, because it shows that you have a judgment and you’re not dealing with it.”

Timely action is the key

Getting sued for debt can be nerve-rattling, but the good news is that you can often mount a valid defense as long as you understand the process and know how to respond.

Simply by filing timely and accurate responses, you greatly increase your chances of winning your case and avoiding repayment altogether.

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