How Does Small Claims Court Work?

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Do you want to sue someone for money you feel you’re owed? The small claims court process can vary from state to state, so this guide is a general overview designed to help you decide whether suing in small claims court is the right move for you.

What Kinds of Cases Are Heard in Small Claims Court?

Many people go to small claims court because they feel they’ve been ripped off. Whether it’s a customer underpaying an invoice or roommates keeping a security deposit, small claims court cases are all about money. In some states, small claims also covers other relatively simple matters, like evictions. Small claims court is designed to be a low-cost option for people with claims below a certain maximum amount. The exact limits for small claims vary by state with $10,000 typically being the highest maximum. However, if you’re owed more than the maximum, you can opt to forgive that amount if you so choose.

Do You Need a Lawyer for Small Claims Court?

In an effort to keep costs down, small claims courts do not require that you hire an attorney with some states outright not allowing it. If you’re in dispute with another party over a relatively low amount of money, it’s typically better to maximize your possible return by representing yourself in court rather than hiring a lawyer.

Starting a Small Claims Case

The first step is to make sure you sue the other party in the right jurisdiction, which is typically the county where the defendant lives or works. The process for filing a claim may differ by jurisdiction but in general, you’ll need to fill out paperwork, have a court clerk accept it and then get on the court schedule with a hearing date. The defendant must receive a court summons to appear on that date.

What Do You Need to Win a Small Claims Case?

Preparation and honesty are the key to a successful small claims court case. Every bit of objective proof you have—that means contracts, emails, hard-copy pictures, bank statements, and other evidence—should be organized and ready to go before the court date. Physical documentation is important. Make multiple copies of everything to bring with you to court and to share with the judge and the defendant. When speaking to the judge, be polite, factual and concise. Leave emotions at home.

What Happens After the Verdict?

If you lose your case, you may be able to appeal the decision, depending on the rules of your state. If you win, your options for collecting the money may be limited. This is why it’s worth considering whether small claims court is worth your time and effort. Most courts don’t assist with collection, and if the person you’re suing truly has nothing, there’s not much you can do about that. Your recourse varies by state. In some cases, you may be able to have paychecks garnished or revisit the issue in a few years to see whether the defendant has come into money.