If you receive a summons and complaint from a debt collector or creditor, it means you’re being sued for unpaid debt. It’s important to respond to (or answer) the lawsuit. You do this by filing official paperwork with the court. Be sure to address every point in the complaint, raise any defenses you have, and file the paperwork within the time frame provided. Debt collectors are counting on you not to answer the lawsuit so that they can win by default. Don’t be intimidated! Take control and learn how to file an answer by reading this guide. You do not need an attorney to answer a debt collection lawsuit successfully.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Updated August 21, 2023
How To Respond to a Debt Collection Lawsuit in 3 Steps
If you have a past-due account, you’ve probably already received several calls and letters from the original creditor and/or a debt collection agency. If the debt collector hasn’t been able to get you to pay the debt after several months, they may decide to take legal action and sue you.
You will know that you’re being sued if you are served with a court summons and a complaint. Most state laws require that your copy of the complaint make clear that you're being sued.
Receiving a court summons can feel incredibly stressful. Take a deep breath. Then empower yourself to respond by learning about the process. The most important thing you can do is respond to the summons! The debt collector is probably counting on you not responding so they can win without exerting more effort. It might be easier for you to win the debt collection lawsuit than you think… even without a lawyer.
Step 1: Answer the Complaint
If you receive a court summons and complaint, first read the court papers completely, then prepare your answer. Answering the complaint means preparing a written response and filing it with the court within the time allowed under your state’s laws.
Your local court website may have sample answer documents or self-help information to guide you through the process. You can always take the summons and complaint to the courthouse and speak with the court clerk. Tell them you’re looking for self-help information or answer forms for your court case. They should be able to guide you to the available resources and explain court rules, but they can’t give legal advice.
Generally speaking, when you answer the complaint, you address each of the facts and claims the creditor (called the plaintiff in a lawsuit) included in the complaint and raise defenses where appropriate. Defenses are covered further in the next section.
Though you can admit to owing all or part of the debt explained in the complaint, you can also deny it outright or for a “lack of knowledge.” Doing so forces the debt collector to prove that you owe the debt.
Step 2: Raise Your Defenses
Your defenses to the lawsuit are a key part of your answer. This is also your only chance to assert your defenses. You can’t bring up new defenses later that weren’t included in your answer.
Some defenses are called negating defenses. Negating defenses focus on denying or refuting part of the creditor’s case by showing that the creditor’s facts are incorrect or that the creditor didn’t adequately prove part of their case against you.
In addition to negating defenses, you can also raise affirmative defenses in your answer. An affirmative defense is when you affirmatively claim that:
Additional information exists beyond what the creditor put in the complaint, and
In light of this information, the creditor isn’t entitled to win the case.
The next section contains some common examples of affirmative defenses that may apply in your debt collection case.
What Are Common Defenses in a Debt Collection Lawsuit?
There are lots of defenses that may apply. Here are a few common defenses:
The debt is time-barred by the statute of limitations. In other words, the debt is too old for the debt collector to legally sue you to try to collect on it. If the debt is several years old, research the statute of limitations in your state to see if you can use this defense. Learn more in our article on the statute of limitations.
The collection agency violated the law when trying to collect the debt. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from engaging in deceptive or unfair practices when trying to collect debts. If the debt collector violates this law, not only can you use this as an affirmative defense, but you may also be able to file a counterclaim for damages. Learn more in our article about FDCPA violations.
The debt collector didn’t serve the summons and complaint properly.
You don’t owe the debt because you were a victim of identity theft or fraud.
The debt isn’t yours.
You already paid off the debt.
Once creditors or lenders charge off a debt, it may change hands several times, going through different debt buyers and collection agencies. This is why there are often errors in debt collection cases. These errors may point the way to your affirmative defenses.
If you’re not sure which defenses to use, contact your local legal aid office or look to see if there are volunteer attorney organizations in your area. If you can afford it, you can also hire an attorney to help.
Step 3: File the Answer With the Court
Filing your answer with the court is as simple as submitting the paperwork you’ve just drafted with your answer and defenses. Some courts allow you to do this electronically. In other courts, you can do this in person or by mail. Check your court’s website or call the court clerk to see what your options are.
Before you file your answer, research your court's rules and instructions for filing. If you are uncertain about how to file your answer, you can call the court clerk's office or visit their website for guidance. Filing your answer is crucial to responding to a lawsuit properly, so be sure to follow the court's instructions and comply with specified deadlines.
Finally, be prepared to pay the court filing fee. These fees cover the court’s administrative costs. If you can’t afford the fee, see if it’s possible to file for a fee waiver.
Tips for Filing Your Answer in a Debt Collection Lawsuit
Here are a few tips to help you successfully file your answer in a debt collection lawsuit:
Format your documents properly and include all required information. Your answer should include the court name, case name, case number, and your affirmative defenses.
Print three copies of your answer. File one with the clerk’s office and mail (or “serve”) one to the plaintiff or plaintiff’s attorney. The plaintiff is the debt collector, creditor, or law firm suing you. Finally, keep one copy for yourself.
Include a certificate of service. This is a document that proves you served a copy of your answer on the plaintiff or plaintiff’s attorney.
Sign the answer. Simple but not to be overlooked! An answer without a signature can be thrown out by the court.
Pay attention to deadlines! In most cases, you only have a few weeks to file your answer, though you may be able to file for an extension with the court. Again, the clerk is your friend here. Tell them you need to file an extension and ask them how to do it. You can also search for this information on your local court’s website.
Don’t let the debt collector win by default. If you don’t file an answer or file for an extension by the date listed in the summons, the debt collector will likely win by default. This opens up the opportunity for wage garnishment and bank account levies.
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What Happens if You Don’t Answer a Summons for a Debt Collection Case?
If you don’t answer the summons and complaint or you lose the case, the court will enter a judgment against you.
If you don’t answer the lawsuit at all, the court can issue a default judgment. This means the creditor or debt collector won by default since you didn’t contest their claims. Many debt collection lawsuits are won by default. Don’t let this happen to you. Filing an answer to the case may be enough to spook the debt collector. If they know the’ll have to fight you in court, they may reach out with a debt settlement offer instead.
Once the debt collector has a court judgment against you, it can take more serious collection measures like garnishing your wages, levying your bank account, or putting a lien on your property. Creditors can garnish your income from work, but some types of income are protected, such as Social Security.
If You Have Bigger Debt Problems, Bankruptcy Might Be the Answer
If you're sued for a debt and it’s one of many you’re struggling to repay, you may want to consider filing bankruptcy. You can figure out which debt relief option is best for you by getting free credit counseling first. Nonprofit credit counselors can help you understand whether bankruptcy is right for you or if a different debt relief solution could help. You can learn more now, too, by reading this article on bankruptcy versus debt relief.
How Bankruptcy Protects You in a Debt Collection Lawsuit
Bankruptcy is a powerful tool when it comes to debt collection lawsuits. Once you file your bankruptcy case, the automatic stay protects you from all debt collection efforts, including lawsuits. If you file Chapter 7, you may be able to have your eligible debts discharged in as little as 3–4 months.
Eligible debts include most consumer debts like credit cards, medical bills, personal loans, payday loans, and more. You may also be able to get your federal student loans discharged through Chapter 7 bankruptcy, though you’ll need to file more paperwork through an adversary proceeding to prove that repaying your loans is causing undue hardship.
Note that there are some downsides to filing bankruptcy. For example, bankruptcy will stay on your credit report for several years. Fortunately, your credit score won’t be ruined forever. With some effort, you can rebuild your credit after filing bankruptcy.
If you choose to file for bankruptcy as part of a debt management strategy, timing can be very important. If possible, file your bankruptcy petition before a court judgment is entered against you. For simple, straightforward Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases, you can file your own bankruptcy using Upsolve’s free tool. If you have a complicated case, it’s often a good investment to hire an experienced local bankruptcy attorney.