Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court
Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court
Includes rules for all 50 states
Ralph Warner, Attorney
March 2016, 16th Edition
Win your small claims case
You don’t need a lawyer to win in small claims court—you need to know how to prepare and present your own case. Smart preparation for your day in court can make the difference between receiving a check and writing one.
Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court provides the information, tips, and strategies you need to sue someone successfully or put up a winning defense in any state..
Find out how to:
- file and serve papers
- mediate an out-of-court settlement
- prepare evidence to support your case
- decide how much to sue for
- line up persuasive witnesses
- present a winning case
- collect money when you win
The 16th edition is completely updated to include the latest procedures for small claims courts in every state. Plus, this book includes useful, practical comments by small claims court judges and commissioners who’ve seen it all.
Are you a California resident? Check out Everbody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California
“Useful advice … for anyone trying to get money back.” -Money Magazine
“You’ll wish you’d read this book when you’d had the chance, it can give you that critical edge.”-David Horowitz, Consumer Advocate
“Walks you through the halls of small justice and explains how to file a claim, figure damages and argue your case effectively."-Kirplinger's Personal Finance Magazine
Your Small Claims Court Companion
1. Basics of Small Claims Courts
- Why Use Small Claims Court?
- Will Small Claims work for You?
- How to Use This Book
2. Do You Have a Good Case?
- Stating Your Claim
- But Is My Case Any Good?
- Breach of Contract Cases
- Property Damage Cases
- Personal Injury (and Mental Distress) Cases
- Defective Product Cases
- Breach of Warranty Cases
- Professional Malpractice Cases
- Nuisance Cases
3. Can You Collect Your Money If You Win?
4. How Much Should You Sue For?
- Cutting Your Claim to Fit the Limit
- Splitting Your Case
- Calculating the Amount of Your Claim
- Equitable Relief (or, Money Can’t Always Solve the Problem)
5. When Should You Sue?
- Statute of Limitations
- Calculating the Statute of Limitations
- What If the Statute of Limitations Has Run?
6. Settling Your Dispute
- Formal Demand Letters
- Get Your Settlement in Writing
- Last Minute Agreements
7. Who Can Sue?
- Married Couples
- Sole Proprietorships
- Business Partnerships
- Limited Liability Companies
- Nonprofits and Unincorporated Associations
- Motor Vehicle Claims
- Government Agencies
- Special Rules for Prisoners and Military Personnel
- Suits by Minors
- Class Actions (Group Lawsuits)
- Participation by Attorneys and Bill Collectors
8. Suing Different Kinds of Defendants
- One Person
- Two or More People
- Individually Owned Businesses
- Corporations and Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
- Motor Vehicle Accident Cases
- How to Sue Minors
- How to Sue Government Agencies
- A Deceased Person’s Estate
9. Where Can You Sue?
- Out-of-State Defendants
- Defendants in Your State
- If You Are Sued in the Wrong Court
10. Filing Fees, Court Papers, and Court Dates
- How Much Does It Cost?
- Filing Your Lawsuit
- The Defendant’s Forms
- Jury Trials
- Your Court Date
11. Serving Your Papers
- Who Must Be Served
- Where Can Papers Be Served?
- Serving an Individual
- Serving a Business
- How to Serve a Government Agency
- Time Limits for Serving a Claim
- Proof of Service—Letting the Court Know
- Serving a Defendant’s Claim
- Serving Subpoenas
- Costs of Service
12. The Defendant’s Options
- If You Are Not Properly Served
- If You Are Sued in the Wrong Court
- If the Statute of Limitations Has Expired
- Try to Compromise
- Try to Mediate
- If You Have No Defense
- Paying in Installments
- If You, Not the Plaintiff, Were Wronged—File a Defendant’s Claim
- Transferring Your Case to Formal Court
- Fight Back
13. Getting Ready for Court
- Using a Private Lawyer
- Consider Mediation—Again
- Be Prepared
- Getting to the Courthouse
- The Courtroom
- The Judge or Commissioner
- Your Courtroom Strategy
- Organize Your Testimony and Evidence
- What Makes a Good Witness
- How to Subpoena Witnesses
- How to Subpoena Police Officers
- How to Subpoena Documents
- Witness Testimony by Letter
- Judges as Witnesses
- Testimony by Telephone
15. Your Day in Court
- If the Defendant is a No-Show
- If the Plaintiff is a No-Show
- Your Day in Court
- Recovering Costs
- A Sample Contested Case
16. Motor Vehicle Repair Cases
- Do You Have a Case?
- Prepare for Court
- Appearing in Court
17. Motor Vehicle Purchase Cases
- New Vehicles
- Used Vehicles From Dealers
- Used Vehicles From Private Parties
18. Bad Debts: Initiating and Defending Cases
- Who Should Appear in Court?
- From the Plaintiff’s Point of View
- From the Debtor’s Point of View
19. Vehicle Accident Cases
- Who Can Sue Whom?
- Was There a Witness?
- Police Accident Reports
- Determining Fault
- Your Demand Letter
- Appearing in Court
20. Landlord-Tenant Cases
- Security Deposit Cases
- Unpaid Rent and Former Tenants
- Former Tenants’ Defenses to Unpaid Rent
- Foreclosed-Upon Tenants
- Drug Dealing and Other Crimes
- The Obnoxious Landlord
- The Landlord’s Right of Entry and the Tenant’s Right of Privacy
- Evictions for Nonpayment of Rent
21. Miscellaneous Cases
- Clothing (Alteration and Cleaning)
- Dog-Related Cases
- Damage to Real Estate (Land and Buildings)
- Police Brutality
- Internet Transactions
22. Disputes Between Small Businesses
- Remember: You Didn’t Always Hate the Other Guy
- Organizing Your Case
- A Case Study—Proving a Contract Exists
- A Case Study—Personal Services Contract
23. Judgment and Appeal
- The Judgment
- Paying the Judgment
- Satisfaction of Judgment
- The Appeal
24. Collecting Your Money
- The Timing of Collecting Your Money
- How to Collect
- Installment Payments
- Judgments Against Government Agencies
- Finding the Debtor’s Assets
- Levying on Wages, Bank Accounts, and Other Property
- Judgments From Auto Accidents
- Property Liens
- Collection Costs
- Renew Your Judgment
25. Legal Research
- Local Laws
- State Laws
- Case Law
A. Small Claims Court Rules for the 50 States (and the District of Columbia)
B. Legal Jargon for Samll Claims Court
Basics of Small Claims Court
Why Use Small Claims Court?......................................................... 6
Will Small Claims Work for You?..................................................... 7
How to Use This Book................................................................... 10
Why Use Small Claims Court?
Small claims procedures are established by state law. This means there are differences in the operating rules of small claims courts from state to state, including the maximum amount for which you can sue; who can sue; and the what, where, and when of filing papers. There are even differences in what small claims court (or its equivalent) is called in the different states, with justice, district, municipal, city, county, and magistrates court among the names commonly used.
Although the details of using small claims courts vary from state to state, the basic approach necessary to prepare and present a case is remarkably similar everywhere. But details are important, and you should do three things to make sure you understand how small claims court works in your state:
Look up the summary of your state’s rules in the 50-state appendix to this book.
Obtain your local small claims rules from your small claims court clerk’s office.
Check out your state’s small claims rules online. See the appendix for information on how to find your state’s small claims court.
The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving modest amounts of money, without long delays and formal rules of evidence. Disputes are normally presented directly by the people involved. Lawyers are prohibited in some states, including Michigan and California, but are allowed in most. However, the limited dollar amounts involved usually make it economically unwise to hire a lawyer. The maximum amount of money for which you can sue (in legal jargon, the “jurisdictional amount”) is set by state law, too. While these amounts vary state by state, the range is from as low as $2,500 (Kentucky) to as high as $15,000 (Delaware).
Check your state’s jurisdictional amount before you file. We provide the most up-to-date information available at the time this book was published. But these amounts change, so be sure to check the rules for your state before filing. An excellent resource for 50-state small claims court information is
There are three great advantages of small claims court:
You get to prepare and present your own case without having to pay a lawyer more than your claim is worth.
Filing, preparing, and presenting a small claims case is relatively easy. The gobbledygook of complicated legal forms and language found in other courts is kept to a minimum. To start your case, you need only fill out a few lines on a simple form (for example, “Defendant owes me the sum of $4,000 because the 2012 Neon he sold me on January 1, 2016, in supposedly ‘excellent condition,’ died less than a mile from the car lot”). When you get to court, you can talk to the judge in plain English without any legal jargon. Even better, if you have helpful documents or witnesses, you can present them to the judge without complying with the thousand years’ accumulation of rusty, musty procedures, habits, and so-called rules of evidence required in other court cases.
Small claims court doesn’t take long. Most disputes are heard in court within two or three months from the time the complaint is filed. The hearing itself seldom takes more than 15 minutes. The judge announces a decision either right there in the courtroom or mails it within a few days.
Will Small Claims Work for You?
Before you decide that small claims court sounds like just the place to bring your case, you will want to answer a basic question: Will the results you expect to achieve balance out the effort you will have to expend? Even in small claims court, a successful case will probably take ten to 20 hours to prepare and present and, depending on your personality, may actually cause a few sleepless nights.
In order to assess whether your dispute is worth the effort of bringing to court, you will want to understand the details of how small claims court works, starting with being clear about who can sue, where, and for how much. You will also want to do the following:
Learn a little law to answer such important questions as whether you are likely to win and, if so, how much; what types of papers you must file and when; and who can sue (and be sued). Part of this involves knowing the different legal rules for different types of cases—for example, a personal injury claim versus a security deposit dispute.
Once you conclude you do have a winning case, understand how best to prepare and present it.
Finally, and most importantly, determine whether you will be able to collect the money if you win. This is an important detail that so many people overlook, to their later dismay. Assuming that you prepare and present your case brilliantly and get a judgment for everything you request, it’s to little avail if you can’t get paid. Unfortunately, many plaintiffs who go through the entire small claims procedure and come out winners have no chance of collecting a dime because they have sued a person who has neither money nor any reasonable prospect of getting any.
This book covers of all of these. The first several chapters will help you decide whether or not you have a case worth pursuing; these are not the chapters where grand strategies are brilliantly unrolled to baffle and confound the opposition—that comes later. Here we are more concerned with such mundane tasks as locating the person you want to sue, suing in the right court, filling out the necessary forms, and properly delivering the forms to the person you’re suing.
Defendants may want to file their own lawsuit. In addition to their right to defend themselves, defendants also have the opportunity to file their own case against the plaintiff. (See Chapters 10 and 12.) If you are sued, you’ll want to do this if you believe that you lost money due to the same events the plaintiff is complaining about and the plaintiff is legally responsible for your loss. Defendants’ claims commonly develop out of a situation in which both parties are negligent (for example, in a car accident) and the question is who was more at fault. If your claim is for less than the small claims court maximum, you can file there. But if it is for more, you will want to check your state’s rules. Typically, you’ll learn that you should file your case in a different court (and have your opponent’s case transferred there), but your state may use a different system. (See Chapter 10.)
Below are preliminary checklists of things (“Initial Stage Questions”) you will want to think about at this initial stage—depending on whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant. This book goes into each of these areas in more detail, and provides targeted advice for both plaintiffs and defendants in small claims cases.
Initial Stage Questions for a Plaintiff
1. Do you have a good case? That is, can you establish or prove all the key pieces of your claim? (See Chapter 2 for a discussion of what is needed to win contract, debt, property damage, and other common types of cases.)
2. How many dollars is your claim for? If it is for more than the small claims maximum, do you wish to waive the excess and still use small claims court? (See Chapter 4.)
3. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the other party to offer a compromise? (See Chapter 6.)
4. Are you within the deadline (statute of limitations) by which you must file your suit? (See Chapter 5.)
5. Whom do you sue and how do you identify this person or business on your court papers? In some types of cases, especially those involving businesses and automobiles, this can be a little more technical and tricky than you might have guessed. (See Chapter 8.)
6. Which small claims court should you bring your suit in? (See Chapter 9.)
7. If mediation is offered or encouraged by your small claims court, do you understand how it works and how best to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
8. Can you prove your case? That is, do you understand what evidence
9. Can you make a convincing courtroom presentation? (See Chapter 15.)
10. And, the most important question: Assuming you can win, is there a reasonable chance you can collect? (See Chapters 3 and 24.)
Initial Stage Questions for a Defendant
1. Do you have legal grounds for a countersuit against the plaintiff? Or put another way, does the plaintiff really owe you money instead of the other way around? (See Chapters 10 and 12.)
2. Do you have a partial or complete defense against the plaintiff’s claim?
3. Is the plaintiff’s money demand reasonable, or excessive? (See Chapter 4.)
4. Has the plaintiff brought the suit within the proper time limit?
5. Has the plaintiff followed reasonably correct procedures in bringing suit and delivering the court papers to you? (See Chapters 11 and 12.)
6. If mediation is offered or encouraged by your small claims court, do you understand how it works and how to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
7. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the plaintiff in order to arrive at a compromise settlement? (See Chapters 6 and 12.)
8. Assuming you’ll fight the case in court, you’ll normally need proof that your version of events is correct. Can you collect evidence and witnesses to accomplish this? (See Chapters 13–15.)
9. Are you prepared to present your side of the case convincingly in court? (See Chapter 15.)
How to Use This Book
This guide covers the procedures that both plaintiffs and defendants should use to successfully bring or defend a small claims case. Unlike other guides, it also contains step-by-step instructions for preparing particularly common small claims cases, along with examples from real cases.
Chapters 2 and 3 help you answer the basic question of whether you should sue in the first place by asking two crucial questions: Do you have a good case? Can you collect any money from the defendant if you win? If your answer to either of these questions is “no,” then you should read Chapter 6 to see whether you might be able to settle your dispute without going to court, or you should consider dropping the idea of a lawsuit.
Chapters 4–9 walk you through the procedural details. Small claims court is meant to be easy, but it still has rules about how much money you can sue for, whom you can sue, what court you should bring your lawsuit in, and so forth.
Chapters 10 and 11 are about the actual paperwork: How do you fill out your papers and deliver them to the defendant once you’ve decided to bring a small claims lawsuit?
Chapter 12 is for the defendant. You’ve just been sued; what do you do?
Chapters 13–15 get you ready for your day in court. In Chapters 23 and 24 you’ll find out how the judge issues a ruling, how to appeal, and how to collect your money if you’re successful.
In Chapters 16–22, we look at the most common types of cases and discuss strategies to handle each. Even if your fact situation doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories, you should read this material. By picking up a few hints here and a little information there, you should be able to piece together a good plan of action. For example, many of the suggestions on how to handle motor vehicle repair disputes can also be applied to cases involving problems with fixing major appliances such as televisions, washers, and expensive sound systems.
Appendix A contains a summary of important small claims court information and rules for every state. For each state, you can easily find the name of the court that handles small claims cases, the relevant state statutes, the link for the small claims court website, dollar limits for bringing a lawsuit, service of process rules, time limits for responding to claims, how to appeal a decision, and more. You will want to check your state’s small court claims website early in the process, whether you’re a plaintiff or a defendant, for valuable information about how small claims cases are handled in your state. Be sure to also check the local small claims court clerk’s office for local rules.
Appendix B is a glossary of some key legal jargon related to small claims cases and court. Fortunately, there is not a lot of it but there are a few terms that may be new to you. If you’re stumped by a term that isn’t defined in the book, check out the Nolo website, which includes a Free Dictionary of Law Terms and Legal Definitions.