A summons, a piece of paper, announces to you that a lawsuit has been filed against you and you have a limited amount of time to show up in court and present a defense. In short, a summons summons you to court.
The proper response to a summons is to take steps toward presenting a defense in court. This could making note of the date you are to appear in court, reading the complaint, investigating the facts of the case, filling in a form answer or contacting an attorney.
An Invitation to Court
A person wishing to use the U.S. court system to resolve a difference is obliged to give official notice of the lawsuit to the other person or persons he is suing. He does this by preparing a document called a summons, together with his complaint that explains what happened and his injuries. The court stamps the summons and the complaint and returns it to the person -- termed the plaintiff. He takes it and arranges to have it served to the other party, termed the defendant.
Notice to the defendant is considered so important in the law that word-of-honor is not sufficient proof that the summons and complaint were actually provided to the defendant. The documents must be personally handed to the defendant in most circumstances, and the plaintiff is not allowed to be the person who hands them over. A professional process server, a sheriff or at least a third party hands the documents to the defendant, not the plaintiff.
A Response Is Required
Although the summons reminds you to respond, the document you must respond to is called a petition or complaint. It is the opening paper filed by the plaintiff that describes what happened, including his injuries and what you did to injure him. A court-stamped copy of this document is handed to you together with the summons.
Some states, like New York, provide a procedure for the filing of a summons and notice without a complaint. You need to read the documents received to determine whether this is the case with your lawsuit. Follow the instructions on the summons to avoid having a judgement entered against you.
Read the Complaint
A first good step is to read the complaint to get the lay of the land. The complaint will tell you whether you are being sued for divorce, for a car accident or for failure to pay rent. It may also give you an idea of the seriousness of the allegations and whether you need to bring in an attorney.
If you can't understand what the complaint is saying, consult an attorney.
Get Legal Help
If you have an attorney, give her a copy of the summons and complaint and set up an appointment to discuss it. If you have never hired an attorney, get recommendations from friends or the local bar association for someone specializing in the relevant area of the law. For example, if you are being sued for child support, you'll want to talk with a family law specialist.
If you don't have enough money to hire an attorney, you may qualify for free legal help. State laws and resources differ, but you are likely to find information on the court website or through the regional bar association. There is no absolute right to legal counsel in civil matters, so if your state doesn't offer these programs, you may have to represent yourself.
Prepare an Answer or Responsive Filing
If the matter appears simple enough to handle yourself, look for court self-help information online. Many states provide information, advice and free forms for people going to court on their own that will help you on your way. Take full advantage of whatever is available, including form answers.
Often you will have a number of options for response papers, including an answer, a motion to strike, a demurrer and a motion to change venue. You must inform yourself of the purposes for each of these and determine the appropriate response. If you can't get legal help and you don't know what to do, at the very least file a form answer by the deadline set out in the summons. In many states, fill-in-the-blank forms are available for some types of cases.
File and Serve the Answer
You need not only prepare the answer to the complaint by the due date, but also mail a copy of it to the plaintiff on the address he provided on the complaint. You also need to file the answer in court together with a sworn statement that you mailed a copy to the plaintiff, and pay the filing fee.
Fee waivers are available in many states for people without funds. Look for an application for fee waiver online or talk to the court clerk about where to obtain one.