How To Prepare For Small Claims Court

small claims courtPerhaps your neighbor’s dog bit you, and you’re stuck with the hospital bill. Or you’re a contractor, and the homeowner won’t pay for the remodeling work you completed. Or you had a minor fender bender, and you’d rather resolve it privately than make an insurance claim. If you can’t settle your differences with the other person, it may be time to have your day in Small Claims court.

A Small Claims action is a civil (not criminal) matter that resolves disputes about relatively small amounts of money. Each state has different laws about what “small” means. In many states, you can sue in Small Claims court only if the amount you are claiming is less than $5,000. However, in other states it can be as high as $7,500. If more dollars are involved, you’ll have to play in the big leagues in the other courts.

The first step is to do everything possible to get your differences resolved before setting foot in a court room. It will always be less expensive to settle a dispute without getting involved in the legal system. First, you must make a demand in writing. Send a letter to the other person or company that clearly spells out why you think they owe you money, how much you are claiming, and how you calculated that amount. If you have any evidence to support your claim – for example, a hospital bill, estimates, receipts, etc., include copies. Never send the originals with your letters or to a court.

In your letter, be very specific about what you want the other person to do, and give them a reasonable time to do it. For example, “To resolve this matter, please send me a certified check or money order for $350 within the next ten days.” You don’t need to threaten to sue if they don’t comply, but do include a statement with words to the effect that “I reserve all legal rights and remedies available to me.”

Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. This costs a bit more than just a $.39 stamp, but it is crucial to prove that someone signed to receive your letter. Keep a copy of your letter and any enclosures.

If the allotted time passes and no check has turned up in your mailbox, send a second letter. Attach a copy of the first letter you sent, including the attachments. Give them another chance to pony up with the money, perhaps within seven days. Include words to the effect that you hope to resolve this matter amicably but if not, you will be forced to pursue your claim in Small Claims court. Send this letter certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep a copy.

Let’s say you don’t receive the money and the rogue has called your bluff. It’s time to consider whether you want to file a claim in Small Claims court. Before you try your best imitation of the “Boston Legal” lawyers, there are a few things to consider. Do you have the time to do all the necessary paperwork and research? Will you be able to clearly explain your side of the story to the judge? Are you likely to win? How much will it cost you to win? How much will it cost you if you lose? How much will it cost you if the defendant crossclaims and wins? (This means that the defendant says she doesn’t owe you any money, but instead you owe her.) If you win, can you collect your money? Does the defendant have assets or will he or the company file for bankruptcy?

The best way to save money on a straightforward Small Claims law suit is not to hire an attorney. Otherwise, you may end up spending more on your legal bills than the amount you are trying to recover. In fact, in some states you are not allowed to be represented in court by an attorney, although you can get legal advice about your case.

If you decide to proceed, you have to figure out where you can sue. Each state has different rules, but usually you can sue in the state if the defendant lives, works or does business there, or if the incident took place there. Most states have a website with all the information and the form you need to complete (often called a “Complaint” or “Statement of Claim”) and the instructions for filing. If not, the clerk’s office may be able to answer any administrative questions you have. They can’t, however, give you any legal advice. Do not delay in filing because each state has “Statutes of Limitations” for claims. This means if you wait too long to sue (usually a few years) you may lose, no matter how good your case is.

You need to be able to write and speak about your problem clearly and have sufficient evidence to support your claim. Most claims are that the defendant did or did not do something and it cost you money. On the form, after the dollar amount you are claiming, write “plus costs and interest.” This may allow you to recover the amount of your filing fees and interest while you wait to collect the money if you win. Forget about pain and suffering; Small Claims courts generally don’t award these types of damages.

You have to pay a fee for filing your law suit. You didn’t think it was going to be free, did you? This is why everyone says litigation is expensive. The filing fees for Small Claims are generally low, ranging between $5 and $100, depending on the laws of the state. You also have to arrange and pay for the defendant to be served with your claim.

When the defendant receives the Summons, he realizes you were not making idle threats. You mean business. This may prompt him to send the check to get rid of the matter. Nobody wants to go to court. If so, then it has only cost you the amount of the filing fee, photocopying, and postage. This is the best result.

However, the defendant’s reaction may be to do nothing. She may not even turn up in court on the fateful day of the trial. You, however, must appear in person or your claim will be dismissed and you will lose. Dress conservatively; you don’t want to look like one of those idiots who shows up in Judge Judy’s courtroom looking like they’re going to the beach. Bring all the relevant paperwork with you: copies of your demand letters with the supporting evidence, the “green cards” (evidence from the post office that someone signed to receive your letters), and a copy of the paperwork you filed.

Be prepared to tell your story succinctly. Stick to the basic facts. Don’t say mean things about the defendant.

Congratulations if you win! Unfortunately, winning a lawsuit can be a hollow victory. You’ve won your judgment, but now you have to enforce it and collect your money. Forget about getting help from the Small Claims court; their job ended when they gave you a judgment in your favor. It is your responsibility to take legal actions to collect on your judgment, and each state has its laws on that topic. The defendant also may have the right to appeal the Small Claims court’s decision.

The least expensive way to win in Small Claims court is to never go there. Try to work out your differences with the other person or company. Otherwise, you may end up spending a lot of time getting frustrated and throwing good money after bad.

Courtesy of Valerie S. Johnson, manager of Inexpensive Lawyer

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14 Responses to How To Prepare For Small Claims Court

  1. Steven L says:

    Great article Jeff. I am not hoping to be seen on The People’s Court anytime soon.

  2. fractalbrothers says:

    I hope I never have to do this.

  3. Efrain says:

    Awesome advice. Thanks. In school, we are not usually taught well on real life issues. This is really going to help out if a sitation dealing with Small Claims Court ever comes about.

  4. Carla says:

    Can you include the cost of the filing fee in the suit? I hired a photographer to photograph my daughter’s birthday celebration and paid him $350. He never came up with the pictures despite several promises via e-mail. The filing fee is $200.

    Are there other ways to make sure this photographer feels the pain…legal ways, that is. :) I’m thinking of contacting the BBB or Attorney General’s office. Curious what you think. Thx.

  5. vsjhoc says:

    Carla – If you claimed “plus costs and interest” you can generally include reimbursement for your filing fee (if you win the suit). There’s no guarantee that these costs will be awarded, but include everything it costs you to sue (postage, service fee, etc.)

    Good idea to notify BBB and state AG’s office. You can notify the Federal Trade Commission (on-line complaint form at but they are probably unlikely to go after him unless they receive a significant number of complaints.

  6. Cristen says:

    My neighbor’s dog attacked my dog while I was out walking him. Her dog was off the leash, and mine was on a leash. They agreed to pay the vet bill…that is until I brought it to them. I have already contacted animal control, and have a court date set with them. Should I wait until that case is over before I file in small claims to get MY money? Is it necessary to send the letters ahead of time asking for the money if they have already refused to pay it?

  7. vsjhoc says:

    Cristen – Are you still out there? Sorry I didn’t see your questions sooner. It’s a bit confusing — is the court date for a suit by the town against the neighbor for violating the leash laws?

    Yes, send the letters. You should make a formal demand for your money before you sue. Include language that they said they would pay. Something like “Thank you for agreeing to cover the vet bills. The total is $xx and copies are enclosed.”

    Don’t wait for the other case. If I understand you correctly, it deals with a different matter — the town is prosecuting him for violating the local law, while you are sueing for negligence, which is a tort. Ooops, starting to get too lawyer-y. Send me a PM if this is still a question.

  8. jerry stet says:

    I live in Oklahoma and want to file a small claims action against Cingular .. (who doesn’t?) .. by their own admissions they had a unexplaned computer glich which erased over 4000 rollover minutes from my account which threw my account into a large negative very quickly … normal bills were approx $130 .a jumped to $1300 and $700 a month … I spent untold hours with customer service of all levels ..their legal department,and others … they have admitted it was their mistake and made several adjustments to my bill to try to make it right. QUESTION; I am an oil and gas consultant and my fee schedule is $400.00 per day plus expenses … can i recover costs for my time spent on the phone with them while trying to resolve this matter?
    Thanks for your input,

  9. Valerie S. Johnson says:

    Jerry – I’m not sure from your question whether Cingular has made all the adjustments necessary and all you want to claim now is lost income, or whether you’re still tussling with them about the bill. If it’s the latter, you have a better chance of negotiating with them than if they have already corrected your bill.

    I don’t know anythng about OK law on this issue, but if you decide to sue, you might as well throw something in your complaint about compensation for lost income. The worst that can happen is that the judge can deny it.

    Your chances are better if you can provide a detailed log, e.g., 2 hours on this date @ a rate of $x per hour, etc, rather than claiming entire days. Also, it would be helpful if you could show that you gave up actual work on those days for which you would have been paid rather than just claiming that you bill $400 every day.

    Good luck! With any luck Cingular will settle this with you out of court so you don’t have to spend more time and money for lost time and money.

  10. Jill Swisher says:

    Hi I am in a bit of a battle with my
    neighbor. My dog ran out out and jumped on him scratching him. He jumped out the window and I was not home. He would of been twelve this winter. We called the family right away and the dog warden had sent them to the hospital. The police would not make a report because there was no injury. I was not home. My husband went to their house the next day and said we were so sorry what could we do. pay bills, homeowners anything. They told us just the copays. I saw the woman and her son the next day. She said it was a $100.00copay at the hospital and they just had to pay $10.00 for a prescription. Like a jerk I gave her cash. The only thing was my husband, myself, my son and my neighbor were there with me. My daughter had been at the hosptial about a week later and I was told if you pay your copay upfront you get a 15% discount. This is when I knew something was wrong. We started getting phone calls about two weeks later saying she wanted 550.00 for a hospital bill. We said could we please see it and we will gladly go pay the hospital. I called the hospital and talked to a nice woman who said I couldnt get any info but she looked up the date anyway she said there was no bill for 550.00 it could be a seperate bill for the doctor in the ER. She told me the hospital bill had been covered 100% except for the $100.00 which she didnt pay but I gave her. We have received nothing from her but phone calls and yelling matches. We just received in the certified mail small claims papers for 1350.00 in bills. It is legal to sue when we have never been showed these bills. She told us she is going to bill the rest of the bills through her insurance after she gets cash from us. i worked in the criminal section of a local court for 8 years never have I heard of this being done. I would call my old coworkers but that was over 14 years ago. By the way my dog was put to sleep our choice. The boy and his friends had beat it so bad they broke his hip i am sorry to bother you but i have no right Thanks Jill Swisher

  11. vsjhoc says:

    Jill – Sorry to hear about your experience with your neighbor, and really sorry to hear what happened to your dog. Because he is sueing, he has to prove his case. He has to show that you had a duty to keep your dog away, that you were negligent in doing so, that he suffered physical damage from the attack, that the attack required medical attention, that he got medical attention, that the bill was for that medical care, etc. I don’t think he can go after you and then the insurance company; I think it’s got to be the other way around (he makes an insurance claim and then can only go after you for the difference).

    Let him try to make his case. He sounds sleazy and a judge will probably see that. Just stay calm and tell your side of the story, including that you paid cash but failed to get a receipt and that they beat your dog nearly to death in retribution. Good luck!

  12. Donna says:

    Do you sue the insurance co. or the person who hit you?

  13. Mariana says:

    I left my dog with a pet sitter (veterinary technician 15 years) and she left him outside with 104 degrees. He died in 1 hour while she went to get lunch. I took my baby to get a necropsy because I think there is something behind his death. I have to see the judge because I make a citizen’s complaint against her. Can I still send her to small claims?

  14. Patsy Dressler says:

    This is avery good article, but I don’t understand why that they can’t make the Defendent pay. Seems like the Defendent will just laugh in your face and go on about his business, and you still haven’t gotten your money There ought to be something else you could do. Why a signed piece of paper from the defendent shows how much he received is not enough to make him have to pay.

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