866-490-6447

McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

Small Claim Court Education

Definition of Small Claims

Chasing down security deposits and getting paid for money owed are two of the most common reasons why people file small claims suits. But apart from a few restrictions, just about any dispute can be taken to small claims court, if the amount of money requested falls within the maximum amount allowed by state law.
In small claims court, there are no attorneys, juries or special courtroom procedures. Most of the time, the only people involved are you (plaintiff), your opponent (defendant) and the judge.

In recent years, many states have increased the maximum amount you can recover. Plus, court judgments have become increasingly simple to collect.

If you've failed to settle your dispute with phone calls and letters, SmallClaim.com takes the hassle out of filing a small claims case. You do not have to struggle with court documents or time-consuming filing procedures. Simply answer a few questions online, and SmallClaim.com will take care of the rest. We will create the necessary documents for you, and in some states, even file them with the proper court.

Determining the Maximum Claim

Click here to see the chart for the maximum claim amounts per state

Only civil cases, not criminal cases, can be addressed in small claims court. Some of the most common types of cases include:

  • Property damage
  • Breach of contract and business disputes
  • Defective product or unsatisfactory service
  • Landlord-tenant disputes
  • Fraud
  • Accidents and personal injury
  • Unpaid debts

However, many types of cases are not suitable for small claims court. For example, if you already have a court judgment in your favor but the person has not paid, then you would need to enforce your current judgment, not file a new case. Another example, small claims court is also not appropriate for landlords seeking to evict a tenant (but it can still be used to collect unpaid back rent).

Furthermore, every state has a monetary limit as to how much you can recover from a small claims case. Please see the chart below for the maximum claim amounts per state.

Small Claims Statute of Limitations

What are the statutes of Limitations?

Each state has a time limit, or statute of limitation, as to when a small claims case can be filed. For instance, if your neighbor owed you money 20 years ago, you cannot file a small claim today for that money. The statute of limitation has expired.

Demand Letter for a Small Claim 

For most people, using the court to settle a dispute is a last resort. For that reason, many courts require you to first request payment from the other party before you can sue. You can make your request personally, by phone or in writing.
One of the best ways to meet this requirement is to send a demand letter via certified mail. The letter should be written in a very clear but non-abusive tone. It should start with the facts of the case and why you feel payment is justified. The letter should also outline exactly what you are seeking and a deadline for payment.
Keep a copy of the letter and the confirmation receipt of delivery, to show the judge you have made your best effort to collect the money without going to court.

Filing Your Small Claim Case

In order to begin a small claims action, you must prepare the proper legal documents and file them in the appropriate courthouse.

The legal documents are typically known as "pleadings" or "statements of claim". They set forth the basic facts of the case, such as what happened, where and when, how much you hope to recover, and what attempts you made to obtain payment.

If your case involves a business you own, you will need to file the small claims case on behalf of your company. Corporations, LLCs and sole proprietorships can all take advantage of small claims court.

Serving Small Claims Papers

After your small claims case has been filed, you must present a copy of that filing to all defendants in the case. This gives them official notice that they are being sued and this process is called service of process. Your lawsuit is not complete without it.

By serving the defendant with your claim, he or she will know what the case is about, how much you are suing for, when the court date will be and where the hearing will take place. You must file a Proof of Service form before your court hearing takes place.

Presenting a Small Claims Case

When presenting your case in small claims court, the most important point to remember is to be brief and clear. Judges reward organization and clear thoughts. Here are some suggestions:

  • Organize the main points you want to make.
  • Be able to explain what you wrote in your complaint.
  • Be clear on the damages that you're seeking and why the defendant owes you that amount.
  • Organize your documents (receipts, cancelled checks, record of telephone calls, etc.), so you won't fumble when retrieving them to back your claim.
  • Line up witnesses with direct knowledge of the facts or "expert" witnesses (a mechanic, for example), and make sure you are knowledgeable to what they will say.
  • The more evidence you have that can be presented in an organized manner, the higher chance the judge will listen. For instance, bringingletters you sent to the defendant, including checks, contracts, records of telephone calls, and dates of when you tried to settle, will show the judge you have made an effort to collect.

You can also bring photos, diagrams, police reports, and estimates from third parties and witnesses to court. Basically, anything that can help your case is applicable. Be sure to bring copies for the opposing side.

Courtroom Procedure

On the date of your hearing, you will first check in with the small claims court clerk's office. When your case is called, the bailiff will swear you in. The plaintiff presents their case first. Then the defendant or judge can ask questions about what you've said.
Again, be as concise as possible. You should tell your story within a minute or two. The longer your statement takes the more likelihood the judge will get bored or frustrated.
 
When the testimony for both sides has been heard, sometimes the judge won't issue an instant decision. The judge may issue a written decision, which the clerk's office will mail to you.

  • A decision in your favor is called a judgment.
  • If the other side doesn't appear in court, despite having notice of the case, the judge can award you a default judgment. This is a judgment awarded to the party present when the other does not show.

Courtroom basics:

  • Direct your remarks to the judge, not the other party.
  • Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard.
  • Maintain eye contact with the Judge.
  • Use exhibits wisely. 

 

Collecting a Judgment in a Small Claims Case

 If you win your case, you become a "judgment creditor." The party that owes you money is the "judgment debtor" and has a specific time period, generally 30 days, to pay. If he or she does not, you take on the dual role of judgment creditor and collections agent. If the defendant does not pay, you can ask the court clerk to help you find the defendant's property out of which your judgment could be paid.
If you've discovered all you can about the defendant's assets but can't convince him to part with any, the law has more drastic remedies:

  • Garnishment
  • If the defendant has a job, checking or savings account, you can garnish cash from any of these. Garnishment allows you to claim money owed and set up a payment plan. For instance, a portion of the debtor's weekly paycheck could be paid directly to you. Funds which can't be garnished include unemployment checks, social security payments, workman's compensation and welfare benefits.
  • Liens
  • If the debtor owns any real estate, you can file a lien on it through the Court Clerk's office. When the property is sold, you recover the amount owed. Liens typically need to be renewed every five years.
  • Writ of Execution

This is a more drastic remedy where you can seize the judgment debtor's property, get it appraised, and sell it to satisfy your judgment. If you're planning to have the debtor's property sold at auction, you'll incur more incidental expenses, but you can normally recover what you're owed.
Collecting from a reluctant defendant can be a long and difficult process. You may want to consult an attorney or collection agency for help. You should also consult the SmallClaim.com Collecting Your Judgment Guide for your state. This guide walks you through the collection process.