How To Answer A Court Complaint

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Answering a complaint is the most important aspect of a court case. If you fail to timely answer the complaint, you may lose your right to defend yourself and are vulnerable to a default judgment. Be prepared for strict guidelines in responding to the complaint in order to preserve your rights.

Answering the complaint is a first very important step to take if a court case is filed against you. If you fail to timely answer the complaint, you may lose your right to defend yourself and leave yourself vulnerable to a default judgment.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

The rules in every state are different with respect to how to respond to a civil complaint filed against you. However, the basics are the same: you must respond to the complaint paragraph by paragraph in a document called an answer.

What Is a Complaint?

A complaint is a formal legal document that is filed with the court to start a lawsuit. The person or entity who files a complaint is called the plaintiff. The person or entity being sued is called the defendant.

The complaint lists in numbered format the facts and legal bases to support the plaintiff's belief that they have a cause of action against you. Once the complaint is filed with the court, the court will then issue a summons. The summons provides you with instructions directing you to respond to the complaint and gives a strict deadline to do so.

The plaintiff serves the summons and complaint as required by your state's rules; typically, service is by a private process server or a sheriff's deputy.

Answering the Complaint

The first step in answering the complaint is to read the complaint and summons carefully. In fact, you should probably read these documents at least twice. The complaint outlines the claims against you, while the summons sets forth a time to respond.

It is imperative that you remember the date on which your answer is due. In many jurisdictions, a failure to timely respond to a complaint is equal to admitting the claims set forth in the complaint. If this happens, the court can rule against you with what is called a default judgment. This means that you have given up your right to defend yourself and you can be liable for any damages that may be awarded to the plaintiff.

If the complaint seems complicated or you don't understand the claims, you should contact an attorney to help you.

Options When Answering a Complaint

One option when answering a complaint is to ask the court to dismiss the complaint. Do this by making a motion, which is a legal document requesting the court do something. This option usually applies to complaints that have some sort of defect, such as lack of personal jurisdiction (that is, the court has no authority over you). Motions should be carefully researched to ensure that you are correct in your assertions. In truth, hiring an attorney for this type of motion is advisable.

Most commonly, however, a defendant will respond to the complaint by filing an answer.

Formatting Your Answer

Your answer must include a caption at the top that identifies the court, the names of both parties and the case number. You can copy the caption from the complaint and add the case number from the summons.

Most importantly, the answer must respond to each numbered paragraph in the complaint. Paragraph by paragraph, you must either admit or deny the specific claim being made against you.

If you have a defense to one or more of the claims being made against you, you can raise it in a separate section called "affirmative defenses"; the numbering for the affirmative defenses should start over again at number one.

Your answer may also contain, in another separate section, any counterclaims you may have against the plaintiff. A counterclaim is a claim against the plaintiff that is related to any of the claims being made against you. In some cases, you may also include counterclaims unrelated to the claims made against you.

Adding Counterclaims to the Complaint

Counterclaims are like filing your own lawsuit against the plaintiff; the plaintiff must file an answer to your counterclaim, just as you filed an answer to the complaint. Therefore, you must set forth your claims in numbered paragraphs, starting at one.

Serving Your Answer

Once you finish writing your answer, you must file a copy with the court and also send a copy to the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney. Review your summons and contact the clerk of the court to ensure you are following the rules precisely (be warned, however, that court employees cannot give legal advice).

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About the Author

Melissa McCall is an accomplished lawyer, science journalist and legal analyst. She graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 2003 and spent two years as a Judicial Law Clerk, followed by 2 years at a general litigation firm and a brief stint as the Director of Environmental Protection for the Virgin Islands. Since leaving the US Virgin Islands, she has worked as a legal recruiter, legal writer and legal analyst.