If you get a summons and petition informing you that you’ve been sued for a debt in Missouri, you need to respond by following the court instructions on the summons form. This often means: 1. Drafting an answer form. 2. Addressing each of the debt collector’s claims against you. 3. Listing your defenses and affirmative defenses. 4. Filing your answer form with the court and serving a copy on the person suing you. You have 30 days to respond to a debt collection lawsuit in Missouri, but if your hearing date is before 30 days from the date on the summons, you might need to respond before your hearing date.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Updated January 22, 2024
How Do Debt Collection Lawsuits in Missouri Work?
If a creditor or debt collector believes you owe them money, they’ll first try to contact you via phone or mail to collect the funds. After a time, they may bring a debt collection lawsuit against you to try to recover the money.
In Missouri, debt collection lawsuits are usually handled in the circuit court in the county where you live. Circuit courts hear lots of different lawsuits, so they have different divisions that specialize in certain types of cases. Debt collection cases are often heard in either the small claims division or the associate circuit court division. Small claims cases must be for $5,000 or less, and Associate Circuit Court cases are for $25,000 or less. Many consumer debt collection cases in Missouri are filed in associate circuit courts.
If you get sued in an associate circuit court in Missouri, you’ll be notified with official court documents called a summons and complaint (or petition, as it’s often called in Missouri).
What Is a Summons and Complaint/Petition?
A summons is an official court document notifying you that someone has brought a lawsuit against you. A complaint or petition will accompany the summons. It tells you how much you’re being sued for and why you’re being sued. The petition will also include a request for a judgment from the court. This is a court order requiring you to pay if you lose the case.
The summons includes other important information as well, including:
The name of the circuit court hearing your case
The plaintiff’s name (the person suing you) and the name of their lawyer (if they have one)
Instructions and a time frame for responding
The consequences of failing to respond to the summons
You usually need to respond to the summons within 30 days of receiving it.
How Do You Respond to a Missouri Court Summons for Debt Collection?
If you’re sued in an associate circuit court in Missouri, read the information in the summons carefully and follow all instructions from the court exactly. The process to respond to a Missouri debt collection lawsuit varies by court and county.
For example, if you’re sued in a small claims court, you may simply be instructed to show up to a hearing at an appointed date and time. If you’re sued in an associate circuit court, you may need to file an answer form within a certain time period or may have the option to simply show up to court. Whether or not you’re required to file an answer form, it’s a good idea to read the rest of this article to better understand how to defend yourself in debt collection lawsuits.
The following information is meant as a general guide. If you get stuck at any point, you can call or visit the courthouse listed on the summons and ask to speak to the court clerk. The clerk’s job is to guide people through court processes and help them understand court forms, rules, and procedures. Though clerks are very helpful in this way, bear in mind that they can’t give you legal advice.
Step 1: Draft an Answer Form
If you’re required or have the option to submit an answer form, you’ll need to draft one yourself. Unfortunately, the Missouri Courts website doesn’t provide great resources, like a templated answer form, for people who are defending themselves in a lawsuit.
Generally speaking, your answer should include:
Case information: Include the case number, names of the parties (the plaintiff and the defendant), and the name of the court as listed on the summons.
Responses to allegations: Address each allegation in the complaint. (More on this in the next section.)
Affirmative defenses: List any defenses you have, such as statute of limitations, mistaken identity, or prior payment.
Your signature and the date
Usually, court documents (including your answer form) have to be formatted in a specific way for the court to accept them. Check your local court’s rules or ask the court clerk for specific formatting requirements like font size, margins, and paper size. When inquiring with the court, you should also ask if any other elements are required to be included on or accompany the answer form. Some courts require things like a certificate of service form or a statement verifying the truthfulness of your claims in the answer.
Step 2: Address Each Complaint/Allegation
The complaint or petition that you receive will list the plaintiff’s claims against you in numbered paragraphs. This provides a guide of sorts for responding to the claims. Number the paragraphs in your answer and make sure they correspond with those in the complaint.
You can admit, deny, or state that you lack knowledge to admit or deny each allegation.
Admitting a claim means you agree that it’s true.
Denying a claim means you disagree with the claim or don’t believe it’s true.
Saying you lack the knowledge to admit or deny a claim means you aren’t sure whether or not the claim is true or you need more information.
The third option here is powerful in that it requires the debt collector and/or their lawyer to prove that claim to the judge.
Step 3: Raise Your Defenses
If you have reason to believe any of the claims in the petition aren’t true or you have information about the debt or debt collector that wasn’t included in the petition, you can raise it as part of your defense.
A regular defense in a lawsuit is like saying, “What the debt collector said isn’t true.” An affirmative defense in a lawsuit is like saying, “The debt collector failed to mention something that could mean they should lose the case.” Affirmative defenses can help you win your case even if what the debt collector says in the petition is true.
Here are some of the more common affirmative defenses used in debt collection lawsuits:
Statute of limitations: The law limits how long a creditor can wait to sue you. If they've waited too long, this defense could invalidate the lawsuit.
Mistaken identity: If the debt isn't yours, stating this can nullify the claim.
Incorrect debt amount: Disputing the accuracy of the claimed amount can challenge the validity of the entire debt.
Prior payment, settlement, or bankruptcy: Proof of prior payment or settlement agreement shows the debt has been resolved. If you filed bankruptcy and the debt is included in your ongoing case or was included in your discharge paperwork, the collector can’t sue you for it.
If the debt collector broke any state or federal laws while trying to collect the debt from you, this may also be an affirmative defense.
As you prepare your defenses, gather any documents that can help support your case. This includes things like account statements, payment records, receipts, credit card or loan agreements or contracts, and other documents.
To learn more about affirmative defenses, read How Do You Answer a Summons for Debt Without an Attorney?
Step 4: Make Copies of Your Answer and Complete Any Other Required Forms
Make at least two copies of your completed answer form. You’ll file the original with the court, keep one for your records, and give one to the plaintiff.
Most states require a certificate of service or an equivalent form. A certificate of service is a document that verifies you’ve delivered a copy of your answer to the plaintiff. Again, ask the court clerk at the courthouse listed on your summons form what the service requirements are and if there is any paperwork you need to fill out for this.
Step 5: File Your Forms With the Court Clerk Within 30 Days
It’s crucial to file your answer form within the court’s 30-day deadline. If you don’t, you risk losing your case.
You can file your answer form in person at the circuit court or by mail. Submit the original form to the court and bring your copy of the form to get a timestamp from the clerk. Keep that form for your records.
If you mail your answer, send the original and a copy for the clerk to timestamp. Include a self-addressed envelope with prepaid postage so the clerk can mail the time-stamped copy back to you.
Step 6: Serve a Copy of the Answer on the Plaintiff
To keep things fair, any time someone files a form with the court that affects the court case, the person must also give a copy to the other party in the lawsuit. This is why you got a copy of the summons and petition. It’s also why you usually need to send a copy of your answer form to the plaintiff.
Each court has its own service rules, which govern how you’re allowed to deliver (serve) the answer form. You can usually do this in person or via mail. If you send the answer via mail, you’ll send it to the address of the plaintiff or their attorney that’s listed on the summons. It’s best to send it via certified mail so you have proof for the court that you sent it when you said you did.
Be sure to send a copy to the plaintiff within five days of filing your answer form with the court.
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What Happens After You Respond to the Lawsuit?
Several things may happen after you file your answer with the court. You may receive:
Official notice from the court about a pre-trial hearing or a court hearing for your case
Notice of a mediation session to try to settle the issue with a third-party mediator before/instead of the case going to trial
A settlement offer from the person suing you
If you are certain that you owe the debt and you don’t believe you have a strong affirmative defense, you can also reach out to the debt collector yourself to try to negotiate a debt settlement agreement. If successful, you’ll end up paying less than you owe on the debt. If you do this, be sure that you’re also still responding to any court notices or showing up for scheduled hearings. If you don’t, you may lose the case.
Again, the exact next steps in your case will depend on the local court overseeing it. Open all court notices and read them carefully to figure out what to do in your case. If anything is unclear or you need to reschedule court appearances, speak with the court clerk as soon as possible.
What Happens if You Don’t Respond to the Lawsuit?
Many debt collectors sue people and hope they don’t respond. Why? Because when you don’t reply, the debt collector can get an easy win and even more power to collect money from you. This power comes from a court order called a default judgment, which allows the debt collector to garnish your paycheck or bank account.
This is why it’s crucial to respond to a summons and petition if you receive one. Simply responding greatly enhances your chances of winning the debt collection lawsuit.
If the judge has already issued a default judgment against you, you may be able to file a motion to vacate (cancel) the judgment or otherwise reopen the case. Filing a motion simply means submitting a formal request (usually via a form) to the court. Speak to the court clerk, tell them your situation, and ask about your options. They can’t give legal advice, but they should be able to tell you if there’s a process in place to contest the judgment.
Need Legal Help?
If you want legal advice on your case or help writing your answer form, you may be able to work with a legal aid organization. These organizations provide free and low-cost legal help for folks who can’t afford a lawyer.