Long before a civil lawsuit makes its way into the courtroom, the parties to the case -- the person who brought the suit and the person who’s being sued -- engage in a process called discovery. This is just what it sounds like -- each side tries to discover and uncover information and facts that are in the other’s possession. Interrogatories are one of several discovery methods. They are questions your adversary wants you to answer in writing, and you must do so and sign your answers under penalty of perjury.
How to Format Your Answer
Technically, each question posed to you is a single interrogatory. Some states limit the number of questions a party to a lawsuit can ask. Some require that a gap of empty space must follow each interrogatory, large enough for you to write your answer. Otherwise -- or if you don’t want to trust something this important to your iffy penmanship -- you can create a document of your own, copying the caption from the top of the interrogatories served on you and labeling it “Answers to Interrogatories.” You might simply number each of your responses so they correspond with the number of the question as it appears in the interrogatories. For example, if interrogatory #1 says, “State your full name and your date of birth,” your own document might read, “#1) Jane Doe, April 15, 1985.” Other states require that you repeat the question in your own document, along with its interrogatory number, then give your answer immediately below it. Check with your local legal aid office or an attorney to find out which format your state requires or if it has no particular rules.
What to Say
If you have an attorney, he’ll review your answers word for word before submitting them to the other side. The trick, which may require a bit of expertise, is to be truthful but not say too much. You don’t want to give your adversary any more insight or information than he’s asking for, so don’t volunteer anything. For example, an interrogatory might ask, “What vehicle were you driving at the time of the accident?” It’s sufficient to state, “A 2010 Ford Taurus” rather than “The blue 2010 Ford Taurus that I purchased four weeks earlier.” Giving extra information can potentially open cans of worms. Even if you’re not represented by an attorney, you might want to take your answers to a professional for review before you turn them over to the other side.
When to Object
You’re typically permitted to object to certain questions, although the court might ultimately overrule your objection and force you to answer. If the interrogatory is vague or unclear, you can state something like, “I object because I don’t understand the question.” You can object because you think the question has no bearing on the case, such as if you’re involved in a divorce action and the interrogatory wants the name of your previous spouse. Write your objections in place of an answer -- don’t just leave that particular interrogatory blank. You can object to questions for a variety of reasons. Consulting with an attorney or legal aid can tell you if you have a basis to do so.
When to Respond
You don’t have forever to answer interrogatories. Each state has rules for the number of days you have to respond, usually about 30. Once you’ve completed your answers and signed them, you typically do not have to file them with the court, but you must serve them on your adversary, usually by mail or hand delivery.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.