The small claims court is a civil court system designed to settle minor disputes between individuals, businesses, companies, etc. You can take someone to the small claims court when your argument is below a dollar limit and has happened within a specific timeframe.
The dollar limit varies from state to state, ranging from $5,000 to $20,000. The statute of limitations states a time after an incident when you can seek compensation through the small claims court. The statute of limitations varies depending on location. As a result, you can not file a claim through the small claims court for something that happened decades ago.
You will also need to know who you are suing to file a small claim, as they will need to show up on the day of the hearing. You'll also need to gather evidence to prove your case so that you can seek compensation.
What to Know Before You Take Someone to the Small Claims Court
It's essential to have a clear picture of what you need and what you'll need to do before getting started on your claim. The first thing you need to know is that the small claims court can only order a defendant to pay money, not take action. Therefore, you can't sue someone through this court to trim their bushes or park elsewhere unless you seek a financial remedy.
You'll need to gather and file the necessary paperwork for your state's small claims court. You can file the required paperwork by fax in some states, while other states accommodate the mail. All states allow you to file small claims paperwork in person and some forms allow you to file the paperwork through a website electronically.
Another essential aspect to consider is location. You'll need to research local laws regarding the small claims court for where the case should occur. Usually, the hearing will happen where the defendant lives. Therefore, you may need to factor travel into the cost of making your claim.
How to Inform the Person You Are Taking to the Small Claims Court
If you wish to seek compensation through the small claims court, you must inform the person you're suing that you are suing them. This allows them to defend themselves and say their side of the story.
Some steps must be followed when informing someone of your filing for the small claims court; check them out below.
- Get their full name and address
- Send them a formal demand letter in writing
- Try to work it out before going to court
You need to know the person you are suing's full name and address before filing your claim. You can't use a PO box in most states in place of an address. If you cannot obtain their full name and address, you can hire a company to do so for you.
When sending your formal letter informing them of your intentions to sue, it's worthwhile paying for tracking for the mail. Doing so allows you to see if the letter arrives and prove that you sent it in court. You can use any third-party service to deliver this letter, as they will keep track of the delivery.
Lastly, the small claims court requires you to attempt to resolve the issue before you appear in court. Therefore, you should try to make a deal with the defendant. Even if you have reached out to them before, it's worthwhile sending a demand letter to inform the person that you intend to sue formally.
Find and Prepare the Court Forms to Start Your Lawsuit
The next stage in taking someone to the small claims court is sourcing and preparing the paperwork for your filing. You can find out about the paperwork needed for your area by searching online.
Some states, like California, have the same state form for every small claims court across the state. While other states, like Texas, have both a state form and individual county forms. It's best to use the county forms if your state offers both.
Some courthouses in Texas even have their own forms, different from the county forms. In this instance, use the local courthouse forms. As a general rule, use the most local forms.
You must fill in the correct forms for your case. If you fill in the wrong form, it will be rejected long before it reaches the judge by the court clerk. It's vital to remember extension forms and amendments to prevent your filing from getting rejected.
File Your Forms with the Small Claims Court
Now that you've got the suitable forms for your local courthouse, it's time to figure out how to go about filling your documents with the court. Similar to the forms, each courthouse has its own procedure for filing your claim.
Here are the ways that you can file your forms with the small claims court:
Some courthouses ot states have e-filing systems that you can use through their website to file your documents. Other courthouses allow you to fax your forms to them, provided you have access to and know how to operate a fax machine.
In some counties, you can file your forms with the small claims court via mail. Although this process likely takes longer than alternatives, especially if there is an issue with your filing.
Most courthouses in the country allow in-person filing at the small claims court.
Regardless of how you file your forms with the small claims court, you must get back the stamped copy from the court. This copy is also called the conformed copy of your filing. A stamped copy is needed when serving the defendant.
If your filing was sent through the mail, include a stamped envelope with a return address so that the court can send you back your conformed copy.
While filing your forms, you must also pay the court fees. The fees and accepted method of payment vary from state to state. However, here are the most common ways to pay the fee.
In small claims courts, like New York City, you must pay the exact court fee in cash when filing your forms.
Other courthouses require business checks or postal money orders to pay the court fees.
Failing to pay the court fee will undoubtedly lead the court to throw out your filing before it reaches the judge. This wasted your time and the court's time as you will need to file your forms again.
After filing your forms and paying your court fees, you should hear back from the courthouse. If you have not heard from your local small claims court within 2 weeks, contact the court and ask for an update. Sometimes forms get lost or mixed up due to human error.
It would help if you remembered most people have their first filing rejected in the small claims court. If this happens to you, call the court clerk and ask for advice or hire a company to file the forms for you.
It's typically not easy to get a hold of workers at the courthouse, so hiring expert help is the quickest way to file your forms.
Serve the Court Papers to the Defendant
Once the courthouse accepts the filing of your small claim, it's your responsibility to inform the defendant. However, you are not permitted to hand over the court summons to the defendant yourself. You must get someone else, who is not a part of the case, to hand them over.
The person you choose to serve the papers to the defendant must be over 18 years of age. The individual must also file a sworn affidavit with the court to say they served the person. If they lie on the affidavit, they may face jail time. The person serving the papers must also break no laws in the process of serving the defendant, and they can not lie about their identity.
If you are struggling to find someone to serve the defendant the court paper, you can ask the local sheriff. However, it usually takes the sheriff's office a few months to serve a defendant for the small claims court.
Again, the easiest way to ensure that the papers are served promptly without breaking the law, is by hiring a licensed process server. The great advantage to hiring a process server is the fees are usually rewarded to you by the court, should you win your case.
Prepare the Evidence for the Small Claims Court Hearing
In most courts, you must submit your evidence to the defendant and the courts before arriving at court. However, this is not the case when you go to the small claims court. You bring your evidence with you on the day when you go to the small claims court.
To prepare your evidence for court, you must gather any paperwork that proves your case. You will also need copies of written agreements, screenshots of conversations, and any other helpful information. You must also calculate the amount of money you are owed based on your evidence.
You are suing your landlord for $2,000 as they overcharged you for rent. You will need copies of bank statements of payments made to your landlord. You'll also need rental agreements, screenshots, and anything else proving that you are owed the money.
All of this paperwork will travel with you to court on the day of your hearing.
Go to Your Hearing
Finally, the day has arrived to go to your small claims court hearing. Small claims hearings usually don't take very long, with most being resolved within 15 minutes.
The hearing will begin with you getting the chance to explain to the judge what happened and why you are owed money from the defendant. It's essential to be calm, respectful, and concise when addressing the judge, as your behavior in court may influence the judge's decision.
Once you've made your case, the defendant will then get the chance to state their side of the story. In most cases, the judge will make an immediate ruling, and your lawsuit will be resolved. The judge will either reward you for the money you are owed or side with the defendant.
The small claims court resolves financial disputes under a dollar limit. The small claims court is designed to be accessible and affordable, so anyone can use it. Here's what you need to remember when taking someone to the small claims court:
- Inform the person you are taking them to court.
- Prepare and file the required forms.
- Serve the defendant the papers
- Prepare your evidence
- Go to your hearing