Most people aren’t comfortable filing a lawsuit in state court—and with good reason. Without a pricey attorney, it’s almost impossible to navigate the complicated procedures, and if your case doesn’t have a high dollar value, hiring a lawyer can cost significantly more than the case is worth.
Small claims courts solve many of these problems. People with simple, low dollar value cases can present cases to a judge for adjudication without needing to observe all of the formalities of traditional court, and without incurring expensive legal fees.
Because of the simplified process, not all case types can be filed in small claims court, and the maximum dollar amount that the court can award is limited, as well—between $2,500 (Kentucky) and $25,000 (Tennessee), depending on your state. Most small claims limits fall between $3,000 and $15,000.
If you’d like to find out your court’s recovery limits, see How Much Can I Sue For in Small Claims Court?
Most disputes involving money can be filed in small claims court. Small claims court is often used to collect a bad debt. It’s relatively simple to present evidence demonstrating that the debt was owed but not paid. Once a creditor receives the judgment, the creditor can use collection techniques to collect the debt.
But that isn’t the only type of case you can file. For instance, you can also ask the court to resolve a dispute regarding:
Some states allow an even broader range of cases. For instance, your state might allow cases involving:
When it comes to disputes involving money, you can usually file in small claims court based on any legal theory that is allowed in any other court, such as breach of contract, personal injury, intentional harm, or breach of warranty. For instance, if you buy an expensive new "all-weather tent" and it leaks the first time you're out in a storm, you have the basis for a valid small claims suit based on breach of warranty.
Learn more about the most common lawsuits filed in small claims court.
No matter where you live, you cannot use small claims court to file a divorce, guardianship, name change, or bankruptcy, or to ask for emergency relief such as an injunction to stop someone from doing an illegal act. Also, a litigant cannot bring a lawsuit against the federal government, a federal agency, or even against a federal employee for actions relating to his or her employment in small claims court. You’ll file suits against the federal government in a federal court, such as the Tax Court (procedures for small claims exist) or the Court of Claims.
Finding out that you can use the small claim forum to resolve your dispute is the first step. Next, you’ll need to learn the process. You can start by reviewing the small claims court rules. When you’re ready to gather evidence for your case, try reading Offering Witness Testimony in Small Claims Court.
If you need help preparing a small claims case from start to finish, consider purchasing Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Attorney Cara O’Neill (Nolo). You’ll likely find everything you need in one place, including information regarding case preparation, presenting evidence, and what to expect.