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What To Do If You’re Being Sued For Debt

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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.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
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Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt here

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Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Updated – January 10, 2019

Digging out of credit card debt can feel frustrating, intimidating and ultimately impossible. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be any of those things if you learn how to take control.

Paying down debt is not only about finding the right financial tools, but also the right psychological ones. You need to understand why you racked up credit card debt in the first place. Perhaps it was a medical emergency or a home repair that needed to be taken care of immediately. Maybe you’d already drained your emergency fund on one piece of bad luck when misfortune struck again. Or maybe you’re struggling with a compulsive shopping problem, so paying down debt will likely result in you accumulating more until the addiction is addressed.

You also need to understand what motivates you to succeed. Do you want to pay down your credit card debt in the absolute fastest amount of time possible that will save more money or do you want to take some little wins along the way to keep yourself motivated?

Here’s a couple strategies consider as you learn the best way to handle credit card debt — and pay it off quickly.

2 common credit card debt repayment strategies

These repayment strategies can help you pay off credit card debt quickly. Keep in mind, you can use these strategies even for non-credit-card debt:

  • Debt avalanche: Focus on paying off the credit card with the highest interest rate first. Then, work your way down. This strategy can save you money on interest and get you out of debt sooner.
  • Debt snowball: Pay off your smallest debts first. Doing so can motivate you to continue making payments as you climb out of debt.

You don’t necessarily need to pick the repayment strategy that gets you out of debt the fastest. After all, if your repayment strategy doesn’t keep you motivated, you may not stick to it.

Using a personal loan or balance transfer credit card

As you seek to repay your debt, you could consider a personal loan or balance transfer credit card with a lower interest rate than on your existing debt. Transferring your debt to one of these financial products could help you reduce long-term interest costs.

But you’ll first need to learn whether or not you’re eligible. Your credit score will play a big role in determining your eligibility for a personal loan or balance transfer card. Use our widget below to figure out if a personal loan or a balance transfer is the best option for you!

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If you have a credit score above 640, you have a good chance of qualifying for a personal loan at a much lower interest rate than your credit card debt. With new internet-only personal loan companies, you can shop for loans without hurting your score. In just a few minutes, with a simple online form, you can get matched with multiple lenders. People with excellent credit can see APRs below 10%. But even if your credit isn’t perfect, you might be able to find a good loan to fit your needs.

Not sure what your credit score is? Click here to learn how and where to find out. If you know your credit score needs some work but not sure of what can be done, click here.

If you have a score above 700, you could also qualify for 0% balance transfer offers. We will talk more about balance transfers below but this option is the best way to pay off credit card debt if you’re able to qualify for a 0% APR balance transfer credit card.

A credit score of less than 600 will make it difficult for you to qualify for either option. If you have a credit score less than 640, struggling to make monthly debt payments and would like to explore your options to reduce your debt by up to 50%, then please click our option below to customize a personal debt relief plan.

Custom Debt Relief Plan

Now let’s talk about the financial tools to add to your debt repayment strategy in order to dig out of the hole.

Let’s say you have $10,000 in credit card debt, and are stuck paying 18% interest on it.

You already know that putting as much spare cash as you can toward paying down your debt is the most important thing to do. But once you’ve done that, so what’s next?

Use your good credit to make banks compete and cut your rates

You could save $1,800 a year in interest and lower your monthly payments based on several of the rates available today. That means you could pay it off almost 20% faster.

Here’s how it works.

Option One: Use a Balance Transfer (or Multiple Balance Transfers)


If you trust yourself to open a new credit card but not spend on it, consider a balance transfer. You may be able to cut your rate with a long 0% intro APR. You need to have a good credit score, and you might not get approved for the full amount that you want to transfer.

Your own bank might not give you a lower rate (or only drop it by a few percent), but there are lots of competing banks that may want to steal the business and give you a better rate.

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You might be scared of a balance transfer, but there is no faster way to cut your interest payments than taking advantage of the best 0% or low interest deals banks are offering.

Thanks to recent laws, balance transfers aren’t as sneaky as they used to be, and friendlier for helping you cut your debt.

Sometimes the first bank you deal with won’t give you a big enough credit line to handle all your credit card debt. Maybe you’ll get a $5,000 credit line for a 0% deal, but have $10,000 in debt. That’s okay. In that case, apply for the next best balance transfer deal you see. MagnifyMoney’s list of deals makes it easy to sort them.

Banks are okay with you shopping around for more than one deal.

Option Two: Personal Loan

If you never want to see another credit card again, you should consider a personal loan. You can get prequalified at multiple lenders without hurting your credit score, and find the best deal to pay off your debt faster.

Personal loan interest rates are often about 10-20%, but can sometimes be as low as 5-6% if you have very good credit.

Moving from 18% interest on a credit card to 10% on a personal loan is a good deal for you. You’ll also get one set monthly payment, and pay off the whole thing in 3 to 5 years.

Sometimes this may mean a higher monthly payment than you’re used to, but you’re better off putting your cash toward a higher payment with a lower rate.

And you’ll get out of debt months or years faster by leaving more money to pay down the debt itself. If you want to shop for a personal loan, we recommend starting at LendingTree. With a single online form, dozens of lenders will compete for your business. Only a soft credit pull is completed, so your credit score will not be harmed. People with excellent scores can see low APRs (sometimes below 6%). And people with less than perfect scores still have a good chance of finding a lender to approve them.

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If you don’t want to shop at LendingTree, you can see our list of the best personal loans here.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Brian Karimzad
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Brian Karimzad is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brian at brian@magnifymoney.com

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How to Manage Debt as a Single Parent in 2019

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When student loan deferment ended for Samantha Gregory, a single mom and founder of site Rich Single Momma, she had one reaction to her payments: sticker shock. “The amount they were asking for was so astronomical, it was bananas,” she said.

As a single mom in debt, these high payments were added to the already steep financial demands of covering household expenses and supporting her children, including one with special needs — all on one income.

Adding debt to the significant challenges of single parenting “puts a strain on not just your finances, but your emotions, your mental health,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I have this burden over my head so how am I going to take care of it and take care of my family?’”

It’s a question any single parent in debt may find themselves asking. There’s no one right answer, but the good news is that there are smart steps a single mom or dad can use to tackle debt. Here are some tested and certified strategies for how to manage debt as a single parent.

8 strategies for a single parent in debt

1. Keep debt on your radar

A key to managing money as a single parent in debt is to keep an eye on what you owe. Gregory warned against letting debt slip in your money management juggling act. “I know for me in the past, I’ve tried to ignore it and hope it would go away,” she said. “But it doesn’t go away. It’s still there, lingering.”

Keep your debts on your radar, so you’re not losing track of them, falling behind on payments or damaging your credit. If you don’t know what you owe, pull your free credit report and look up each outstanding debt you have and record the balance, interest rate, monthly payment and due date. Start a habit of reviewing these accounts regularly.

2. Work with your lender

Once you know what you owe, see if your lender offers any help or accommodations that can make this debt easier to manage.

You’ll have the most options for dealing with federal student loans, as servicers must provide you with options to forbear or defer payments, or switch to a different repayment plan.

Even for other types of debt, it can’t hurt to ask your lender if they’re willing to work with you. They might be open to giving you an extension on your payment, and some lenders will let you skip a payment now and tack it onto the end of your repayment period instead.

3. Claim benefits and support

Help isn’t always easy to come by as a single parent, so make sure you’re claiming the benefits and child support to which you’re entitled.

Federal assistance programs such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and school lunch programs can ease pressure on your budget while keeping everyone fed, for example. Other programs can assist with fixed monthly costs such as housing, child care or health insurance. Many state and local programs can offer additional help.

Single parents should also consider filing for child support. If you’re already entitled to such payments but the other parent isn’t paying, or you feel it’s not enough, consider pursuing legal steps to get adequate support for your family.

4. Revisit your budget

As a single parent with debt, living within your means is the foundation of your financial security. Review your budget to see if there are areas you’re wasting money on things you don’t need or use, whether it’s a neglected gym membership or a house you’re realizing is roomier than necessary. Consider lifestyle changes and sacrifices — big or small — that you could make to lower your monthly costs.

Look for ways to free up some of the mental space you’re using for your money, too, Gregory suggested. She likes to automate payments, for example, to ensure they’re going out on time with less effort on her part.

5. Sell your extra time and stuff

To the single mom in debt, Gregory suggested looking for ways to generate some extra cash. “I’m a firm believer in side hustles,” she said. “There are so many options out there available to create a side hustle, start a business or just get another part-time job or work-from-home job.”

Then, “look around your house and if you have something valuable you can sell, sell it,” she said. Doing so can bring a fast cash infusion that can help you stay current on debt payments, or even make an extra payment.

It can be a tough and even emotional to sell some belongings, Gregory acknowledged. But, “It’s just things and they’re replaceable, whereas your peace of mind, your family and kids, and your health are not replaceable,” she said.

6. Make extra debt payments

If you can carve out extra savings, that’s money you can use to pay off your debts faster. One method to do so is the debt snowball:

  • Figure out how much more of your monthly income you can afford to devote to making extra debt payments. Include this as a line item in your budget.
  • Put that extra cash toward your debt with the lowest balance, and make the minimum payment on all of your other debts.
  • Watch the balance on your high-priority debt decrease faster.
  • Once your first debt is gone, “roll over” the funds budgeted for your monthly payment and the extra payment and apply them to the next low-balance debt.

Making extra debt payments will lower your principal faster which will, in turn, lower your interest costs. As a result, this strategy could avoid hundreds of dollars in interest and shave months or even years off your debt repayment.

7. Consider debt consolidation

For a single parent, debt consolidation can be another way to get ahead. Consolidating debt makes the most sense when doing so will lower the interest rates you’re paying.

A credit card balance transfer is one way to accomplish this. You can open a credit card with a 0% introductory rate. Then, transfer existing balances to this new credit card (note that this will often incur a balance transfer fee) and you can repay this debt interest-free.

If you have higher debt balances or prefer a fixed repayment plan, a personal loan could be the way to consolidate debt. To do so, you can take out a new personal loan with the rates, term or payments you would prefer and use the loan funds to pay off and replace existing debts. You can compare various lenders with our debt consolidation comparison page to get an idea of the terms and rates for which you could qualify.

8. Tap your community for support

Managing debt as a single parent can be hard on you because, at the end of the day, paying them comes down to you alone. “In the back of your mind, you’re thinking ‘There’s no one who can help me with this,’” Gregory said.

However, you don’t have to go it alone — there are often people who are ready and willing to help as close as your own backyard. So let them! Family and friends can help you out in a variety of ways, from spotting you cash in a tight month to helping with child care. You can also get assistance from your church, community and local nonprofits or programs.

Even if you don’t always find the help you need right away, asking around can start you on the track to getting the recommendation or referral that leads you there. Gregory also suggested online communities, such as local or single-parent Facebook groups, as a way to crowdsource solutions and get connected with helpful resources.

Pass your debt and money lessons on to your kids

Debt can be a big regret for many single parents. “If I had more information when I was going to college, I wouldn’t have taken out so many loans,” Gregory said.

But these ideas for how to manage debt as a single parent can help you push past regret into action. In doing so, you’ll be creating the financial security that your kids need, all while modeling what good money and debt management look like in action.

Gregory, for example, used her experience with student debt to warn her daughter away from borrowing to pay for college. As a result, “She’s really blessed that she doesn’t have to take out student loans, so she won’t be saddled with that big debt when she graduates from college,” she said.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Elyssa Kirkham
Elyssa Kirkham |

Elyssa Kirkham is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Elyssa here

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