Before you file a small claims suit, consider the time, effort and expense required to assert your claim. The amount owed or dollar value of property may not exceed the maximum amount of $2,500. Make sure that you have some proof of the debt such as a receipt, note, bill of sale, warranty or a witness. If at all possible, try to settle your dispute out of court. When a reasonable agreement can't be reached, a claim may be filed.
To start a small claim, the plaintiff must file a claim form in district court. The form is available from the court or you can find it online. Before you file the form, make sure you have the correct name and address of the defendant. If the defendant is a corporation, contact the Secretary of State's Office to find out the name of the corporation and the name and address of the agent for service. If the company is not a corporation, use the name of the owner and the business name.
The following information is required on the form:
- Your name and address
- The address where the defendant can be served
- The amount of money the defendant owes you
- A statement about why the defendant owes you money
The fee for using the court is $30 plus the plaintiff must pay the cost of sending the papers to the defendant by certified mail. If the papers can't be delivered by certified mail, then the plaintiff needs to pay for the services of a sheriff or constable to serve the papers. The clerk of court can tell you how to get a sheriff or constable. If you win the case, you can recover the court costs from the defendant.
Where to File
A small claims case may be filed in the division of the district court where either the plaintiff or the defendant lives. If the plaintiff is a corporation, the case must be filed in the division where the defendant lives.
Answer Date and Trial Date
After you file your claim, the clerk will assign a date by which the defendant has to answer. This is called the answer date. The clerk will also set a trial date. You will need to go to trial on the set date only if the defendant files an answer. It is the plaintiff's responsibility to call the clerk the day after the answer date to find out if the defendant filed an answer.
Notice to Defendant
After you file the claim, the clerk mails a copy to the defendant.
The defendant must file an answer to the plaintiff's claim by the answer date and send a copy to the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney if one is listed on the claim. If the defendant files an answer, the court knows the defendant disagrees with the claim and it will be necessary to have a trial. The defendant doesn't need to go to court on the answer date but must make sure that the small claims clerk receives an answer by that date.
Even if you think you owe the plaintiff something but you disagree with the amount claimed, you should file an answer and request a hearing. This gives you a chance to come to court for a trial to question how the plaintiff arrived at the amount claimed.
The plaintiff will need to call the clerk the day after the answer date to find out if the defendant filed an answer. If the defendant doesn't file an answer by the answer date, a judgment will be entered for the amount the plaintiff is seeking.
If the defendant doesn't answer the claim by the answer date, the court assumes the defendant doesn't want to challenge the plaintiff's claim. The plaintiff doesn't need to go to court if the defendant doesn't answer the claim.
If you admit that you owe the plaintiff the amount claimed but you need time to pay, you may state that in your answer. You will need to come to court on the trial date so the court can rule on your request. If you fail to come to court on the date set for trial, the court will enter a judgment against you.
If the defendant believes the plaintiff owes money to him or her, the defendant should state why money is owed and how much in the answer. This is called a counterclaim.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What is "service" and how is it done?
- Can an attorney assist me with filling out my claim forms?
- What should I do if I can't make the court date?