No matter how false the accusations are in a legal complaint filed against you, you must respond in the manner required by law. State procedures differ, but all provide a specific format for responding to a complaint. Generally, you must file either an answer or a demurrer, depending on the circumstances.
Civil Complaint Procedures
A lawsuit starts when you are served with a summons and complaint or petition. Generally, service occurs when you are handed the papers by an adult who is not a party to the action. The summons tells you the case number, where to file your response and when it is due. The complaint tells you which accusations are brought against you. Read them carefully and obtain legal help to understand them, if necessary, before you respond.
It doesn't matter how outrageous the charges may seem to you. If you are named as a defendant in a civil complaint, you must respond according to the legal procedures of your jurisdiction to participate in the lawsuit. An angry letter, even if filed in court, will not help. Most states provide a form you can use to respond to every allegation in the complaint against you, termed an answer or response to complaint. These are typically available online at the court website or in paper form from the court. California courts, for example, offer a self-help website with forms and explanations of court procedures. However, more than one response form may be available so be sure you select the one appropriate for your case.
Failure to File an Answer
You have a limited period of time to respond to a legal complaint – generally 20 or 30 days – so be sure to mark the due date on your calendar. If you do not file a response in time, the other side can ask the court to make a ruling against you in your absence. This is called a default judgment. To file for default judgment, the person must prove that you were served with the summons and complaint, then establish that the time for filing a response has passed.
Filing a Demurrer
Instead of responding to the complaint with an answer, you can file a demurrer. However, you'll probably need legal help to do this since demurrer rules vary among jurisdictions. Basically, a demurrer says that the complaint does not state a legally valid cause of action. This can be based on any of several different legal claims, depending on your state laws. For example, you can file a demurrer if the person who filed the complaint against you is underage or the behavior complained about happened so long ago that the action is barred by your state's statute of limitations. You'll need to prepare a notice of demurrer as well as a legal memorandum, so get an attorney on board before you begin. Other types of response pleadings may also be available in your state.
- California Courts: Getting Started
- California Courts: Filing Papers in Court
- New York State Unified Court System: How to Respond to a Summons & Complaint
- General Information About Responding to a Civil Complaint
- Challenging a Complaint by Demurrer
- Official California Legislative Information: California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 430.10 - 430.90
- California Courts: General Denial