Now let's look at how you obtain and fill out the papers you need to start your lawsuit. To find out what forms you need, visit or call the small claims court where you plan to file your lawsuit. You can also check online for this information, by going to your state's small claims court information website. It should have information and copies of the forms you need to begin your lawsuit (see the Appendix for your state's website). If you get the forms online from your state's information website, make sure that you check whether the county or court where you plan to file has any additional forms or requirements for filing a small claims court action (some do).
To start your case, you will have to file a complaint or claim. This form is often called a plaintiff's statement, general claim, or plaintiff's claim. If you get your forms from the court where you will be filing your lawsuit, you will likely receive a package with all the forms you need and instructions for filling out the forms and filing your papers. Most states also have a lot of free self-help information on their small claims court information website. Before completing your forms, check your state's website for additional information.
Many states have all the forms you need to start your case available online. Some courts allow you to fill in and file your forms online or to file online through an approved online service provider such as nCourt or EZLegalFile.com. In other states, you will need to fill out the forms and mail or deliver them to the court. Check your state's website and local court rules to see the rules for your jurisdiction.
In most cases, you will need to provide the following information to complete your complaint or claim:
Other information may be required as well. Follow the instructions on your forms and if you still have questions, ask your local small claims court clerk for help. In most states, small claims clerks are required to help people fill out these forms.
Be sure you name everything properly. Chapter 7 has details about the correct way to list yourself or your business as the plaintiff. In Chapter 8, we discuss how to properly name the defendant.
You'll need to sign the completed form, make copies of the original, and file the original and required number of copies with the court. (If you're filing online, you'll need to follow the online procedures for proper filing and payment of your filing fee.) In most cases, you can file the papers in person or by mail. Check your local court's rules. Make sure to keep one copy of everything you file for your records. You will also need to pay the court a filing fee. If you can't afford the fee, you may be able to have it waived. Check with your local court for rules on waiving this fee.
In most small claims courts, you don't need to provide written evidence until you get to court. Some small claims courts, however–such as those in Washington, D.C.–require that certain types of evidence (such as copies of unpaid bills, contracts, or other documents on which the claim is based) be provided at the time you file your first papers.
Whether or not your state's rules require written documentation of certain types of claims, it is wise to spend a little time thinking about how you will prove your case. I discuss this in detail in the later chapters of this book. You should read ahead and figure out exactly what proof you will need and how you will present it before you file your first court papers. Being right is one thing–proving it is another.