How to Obtain Personal Property in Small Claims Court

By Teo Spengler - Updated June 06, 2017
Man on mountain bike

You can make someone return your personal property or pay you its value in small claims court. When you file your claim, establish that the property is yours and you want it back, even if you ask for money damages.

Small Claims Court

Lawsuits are expensive, complex and take forever, but small claims court is a different kind of process. Designed to allow people to settle small matters without huge attorney fees or an elaborate court process, small claims courts make it easy to resolve legal disputes.

One of the reasons small claims court is so fast and easy is that, generally, only money damages are permitted. While some small claims courts hear certain eviction matters, none litigate divorce, bankruptcy, antitrust or other complex cases. Some small claims courts will order the return of your personal property as an alternative to its monetary value. That means the court can order the defendant to either pay you the amount established to be the value of that property – up to the monetary claim limit of the particular state's court – or in the alternative, the judge can order the return of your property in good condition.

How to Recover Property in Small Claims Court

If your landlord locked you out of your apartment and won't give return your mountain bike, or your spouse from whom you are separating made off with the family bible, can you get it back in small claims court? The answer is: Sometimes.

Getting your property back by court order is called restitution. It is an equitable remedy which means that it is only used in a situation where fair play demands restitution. When restitution is permitted in a small claims court, the judge can order that a particular piece of property be transferred to its original owner when fairness requires it. For example, if you sell an item of personal property, and the buyer fails to pay for it, you may prefer to get your property back than to win a judgment for money that you may never collect.

Some states, like Maine, expressly permit you to sue for restitution in small claims court. You can ask the court for an order that your property be returned to you. In other states, like Massachusetts, you can request monetary damages only. But the Massachusetts court's website advises that if you want your personal property back, establish in your personal statement that the property belongs to you – in the filing itself, ask specifically for money damages. That means that the court can order the other person to pay you what the property is worth or to return your property to you.

This approach is your best bet in states that do not expressly permit you to ask for restitution in small claims court. Make a showing that the property is yours, that it is unfair for the other party to keep it and that you want it back.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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