Answering a summons isn’t necessarily your only chance to defend yourself in a lawsuit, but if you don’t take it, you may not get another. It’s your way of letting the court know that you want to be involved in the proceedings. If you don’t respond, the plaintiff – the person or company suing you – will ask the court for a default judgment. In most cases, the judge will grant it, giving the plaintiff everything he asked for in his complaint.
The summons is one of two very important documents you receive when someone is suing you. It tells you when you must appear for a hearing and how long you have to file a written answer for the judge to consider before the hearing. You usually have less than a month to file your answer.
The content of your answer depends on what the plaintiff alleges in his complaint -- the document that explains why you’re being sued, usually in numbered paragraphs. For example, if you defaulted on a credit card, the first paragraph might say you entered into a contract with the lender and accepted the card; the second would say you haven’t made any payments since a certain date; and the third might set out the total balance you currently owe. At the end, the complaint usually asks for relief -- what the plaintiff wants the court to order.
Filing an Appearance
Some states allow you to file a simple document called an appearance, or notice of appearance , in response to a summons and complaint. This document tells the court only that you want to be involved in the case and you intend to appear on the court date. You reserve your arguments for the hearing, when the judge will listen to them for the first time.
Filing an Answer
Another option is to write and file an answer. Write your response to each of the numbered paragraphs in the complaint in similarly numbered paragraphs. For each paragraph, you can write “admitted” if you agree with what the plaintiff says, “denied” if you disagree, or “lack knowledge” or “unsure” if you’re uncertain. Washington Law Help warns against admitting anything in writing that you’re not absolutely positive about. It’s better to say “unsure,” and let the plaintiff prove his allegations are true when you get to court.
You’re not limited in your answer to responding only to the plaintiff’s allegations against you. You can also raise affirmative defenses -- the reasons why you believe the judge should dismiss the case. For example, the plaintiff might have waited too many years to sue you, and so the statute of limitations has run out. An affirmative defense must be a legally supportable reason why the lawsuit should not proceed.
Filing a Counterclaim
You can sue the plaintiff as part of the proceedings by filing a counterclaim along with your answer. Your counterclaim must be related to the existing case. If the plaintiff is suing you for money you owe on a contract, you can’t countersue in the same case alleging he denied you employment -- these are two unrelated issues. A counterclaim alleges that the plaintiff is also wrong in the current dispute and you’re asking the court to order relief for you.
If you prepare the answering documents yourself, copy the caption – the top part showing everyone’s names and the case number – from the plaintiff’s papers and enter them on your documents. Forms may be available from the court clerk, and you can also check your state’s website.
The Last Steps
When you’ve completed your paperwork, file all your documents with the court by the deadline noted in the summons. Ask the clerk what the procedure is in your state for serving the plaintiff with a copy. In some states, you can mail the papers, but in others, you have to arrange for hand delivery, or personal service.