There's lots of fun stuff you can get in an envelope, like birthday cards, paychecks, federal tax refunds and those weird cat stickers you ordered from Amazon the day before yesterday. On the absolute opposite end of the "fun" spectrum, you've got a summons, an official order to appear before a judge or magistrate. No one on planet Earth enjoys being sued, but your response to the summons is crucial to putting the whole trial in motion or stopping it dead in its tracks, so exercise your leverage in a tough situation by responding in an informed and thorough fashion.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
You may choose to file an answer to your summons, file a variety of motions to dismiss, delay the case or choose to not respond at all and face the consequences.
Take In the Basics
Once the smoke clears and the stressful reality of getting sued sets in, the most helpful thing you can do for yourself is assess the basic info contained in your summons. The letter will tell you why you, the defendant, are being sued – that's the part of the summons known as the complaint. It will also tell you what the party suing you, the plaintiff, is asking for. You will also find key details, such as what court is hearing the case, the civil action or case number, the date of the summons, a court clerk's signature and, often, the name and contact info for the plaintiff's attorney.
Among the most important details in the summons is your deadline for responding to the lawsuit, typically 20 to 30 calendar days from the summons' date of service. This is the length of time you have to file a response with the court. The window you have before the deadline is especially important, as you'll know how much time you need to prepare your answer, enlist an attorney or attempt to negotiate a resolution with the plaintiff out of court. The summons will also tell you exactly where to file your answer.
Reply to the Summons Letter
In most cases, you'll file a formal statement known as an answer in response to the summons. Filing an answer lets the court know that you intend to defend the case and establishes the basic posture of your legal defenses.
In the answer, provide in writing your defenses to the lawsuit. On a point-by-point basis, you might say that each of the complaint's claims are untrue or you may validate the claims contained in the summons, but then go on to provide more information to defend or explain your actions. Your local court will typically provide forms to help you answer the summons and lay out your defense, such as the general denial form many courts use for civil cases. The nonprofit Civil Law Self-Help Center also provides free answer templates on their website, each dedicated to answering a specific type of case, such as those involving consumer debt, auto deficiency or civil cases in district or justice courts.
Compose and Send Your Answer
In general, your answer should contain information such as:
- Your current name, address and phone number.
- The court and case number.
- The names of all of the plaintiffs and defendants – there may be multiple parties on each side.
- A statement of your intention to submit the answer to the complaint.
- A paragraph or paragraphs that either admit or deny the allegations contained in the summons. You may break down all the statements contained in the complaint and either admit, deny or state a lack of knowledge pertaining to each. You may also agree with the allegations in the complaint, but provide an explanation if pertinent.
- Your signature and date.
- A certificate of mailing if you're mailing the answer; handing it to the court clerk is often a more reliable option.
Additionally, your answer may include copies of attachments or exhibits. For instance, if you deny one of the complaint's allegations regarding a contractual agreement, attach a copy of the contract and refer to that attachment in your answer. As a general rule of thumb, you'll want to keep your answer brief and to the point.
Just answering the summons achieves a few legal motions. Perhaps most important, filing an answer prevents the plaintiff from winning a default judgment against you.
You'll need to serve a copy of your answer on the plaintiff and attach a certificate of service to the answer to prove that the answer has been received. Then file the documents at the courthouse. Make sure to keep a copy of the answer, too.
What if I Don't Respond?
Let's say you get a civil complaint and don't respond to it. Unfortunately, closing your eyes and hoping that the lawsuit disappears won't do the trick. If you don't respond before the deadline stated in the summons, the plaintiff may choose to request a default judgment against you. If the default is granted by the court, you'll no longer be able to respond to the lawsuit or to defend yourself.
If you don't respond, and the court decides to award money in a judgment against you, the plaintiff can win up to the amount they asked for in the lawsuit. You may find your wages garnished, your bank account levied or your property seized.
In some cases, though, choosing not to respond to the summons and complaint may be advantageous, such as when you have no defense to raise and no ability to pay. Fighting the case without any defense can result in you owing more money than you did to begin with, because the plaintiff's court costs and attorney fees may be tacked on to the judgment against you.
Other Responses to a Summons
Answering the summons in the affirmative isn't your only option – in some cases, you may choose to file a motion to dismiss the case, known as filing a demurrer. Some common reasons for doing this include:
- The court listed on the summons does not have jurisdiction over you.
- The summons was not properly served on you.
- The plaintiff failed to state a legal claim in the complaint – the key word being "legal" here. (There are plenty of complaints in the world, but not all of them hold legal water.)
Likewise, you can file a motion to strike a particular part of the plaintiff's complaint if that part is not legal, not understandable, redundant or immaterial to the case at hand.
At the very least, filing a motion to dismiss will postpone your deadline to answer the summons until the judge makes a decision on the motion. Once the decision is issued, you'll usually have 10 days after the decision to respond if your motion is denied. In the best case scenario, the case will be dismissed entirely. If you just need more time to answer, filing a motion to stay asks the court to put the case on hold for a while.
- Civil Law Self-Help Center: Responding to a Complaint if You've Been Sued
- California Courts: Being Sued
- Civil Law Self-Help Center: Generic Fillable Summons Answer
- Washington LawHelp: How Do I Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection?
- LawHelpNC.org: Instructions to Answer a Complaint
- USLegal.com: What Is the Proper Way to Write a Response to a Small Claims Summons?
- Digital Media Law Project: Responding to Lawsuits