Receiving a lawsuit summons for credit card debt can be terrifying and stressful. If your first reaction is to stuff the papers on a shelf and pretend they never happened, you're not alone.
Yet acting on a summons is your best interest. More than 70% of debt collection lawsuits over the past decade have ended with a default judgment, or an automatic judgment against you when you don’t show up to court, according to a study from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The formality of legal language can be intimidating, but, ultimately, the creditor is simply asking the court to enforce the debt. Even though the court is involved, you still have rights and an arsenal of tools for responding to the lawsuit. You may even be able to work out a convenient payment arrangement.
- Responding to a court summons for a credit card is important, whether you owe the debt or not.
- Pay attention to any dates mentioned in the lawsuit so you don't miss the opportunity to participate in the case.
- Keep a record of all your actions, even phone calls, and keep copies of any documents you send.
- You're not required to pay a debt you don't owe, but you must follow the court process to enforce your rights.
How Does a Court Summons for Credit Card Debt Work?
Filing a lawsuit generally isn't the first collection action from a creditor or a debt collector. If they haven't been able to reach you, a lawsuit may be the last resort for collecting payment on the account. A lawsuit summons for credit card debt notifies you that you're being sued for an unpaid debt. It tells you that you have the opportunity to appear in court, provides information about the case, and lets you know the steps you should take. You'll also receive a complaint, which lists the reasons the creditor is suing you.
A court summons typically requires you to file an answer, either accepting or denying the creditor's claims. Your summons will include information about whether you need to answer in writing or show up in court. Responding to the summons is critical, regardless of whether you believe you owe.
If you're not confident that you can respond appropriately, seek help from an experienced attorney. "An attorney understands if the plaintiff, the person who sued you, did it right and [can suggest] legal defenses you can raise,” Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., founder and managing director of Tayne Law Group, said in an email to The Balance. “It's important to get this right from the beginning, or you can lose your case."
Responding to the summons allows you to question the validity of the lawsuit, including whether you actually owe the amount, that the creditor or collector has the right to sue you, and that the debt is within the legally enforceable time limit.
Ignoring the lawsuit doesn't make it go away. In fact, it can make things worse since you miss the opportunity to give your side of the story. The court may automatically side against you and enter a judgment for the lawsuit amount. Then, with a judgment, the creditor can ask the court for permission to levy your bank account or garnish your wages.
Refusing service doesn't stop the lawsuit. The court may proceed with the case without you.
What To Do If You Owe the Debt
Answer the Lawsuit
Respond to the lawsuit by the date outlined in the summons, even if you don't think you can afford to pay the debt. If you don't respond, the court may issue a judgment against you, essentially confirming that you owe the debt. Answering the summons informs the court that you want to be kept in the loop on any proceedings, Donald Maurice, a partner with Maurice Wutscher LLP, a national financial services law firm, told The Balance.
Contact the Creditor's Attorney
Consider contacting the creditor's attorney to ask for a settlement as many attorneys are prepared to offer an arrangement that allows you to pay a reduced amount, sometimes over a period of time, Maurice said.
When you contact the creditor's attorney, you can also request to be sent information about the debt including the full name of the creditor, the phone and address, best address for sending correspondence, and any information about the debt they can provide. Follow up your request with a letter, saving a copy for your records.
What To Do If You’re Summoned for Credit Card Debt That Isn’t Yours
Check Your Records
Start by verifying that the debt isn't yours. Read through the summons and complaint to identify the creditor who filed the lawsuit against you and check your records for a previous account with the creditor.
Checking your credit report can help jog your memory. However, since credit reports can contain errors or may not list all accounts, you shouldn't solely rely on your credit records to verify a debt.
Review old bank statements for a payment to the credit card issuer and search your email inbox for billing statements to try to track down any account you might have had with the card issuer.
Ask for Proof
Keep in mind you can ask the creditor's attorney to send documentation for the debt. You can call the attorney to request this information, but make sure you also send a letter. If you dispute any part of the complaint, for example, the amount or whether the debt belongs to you, let the attorney know.
If you agree to the debt, make a payment, or agree to a payment arrangement, you may accidentally restart an expired statute of limitations.
Answer the Lawsuit
You must answer the lawsuit even if your answer is that you don't owe the debt. Remember failing to answer may allow the creditor to automatically win the lawsuit against you. There are a number of defenses you can state in the answer, but not being able to pay isn't one of them, Leslie said. A few valid legal defenses include: the statute of limitations may have expired, the amount could be incorrect, the debt may not belong to you, or you may have already paid it.
Make sure you have proof to back up your reason or defenses to the lawsuit. "Any statement made should be true to the best of your knowledge … so you don't have a credibility issue," Tayne said.
Keep Detailed Records
Documenting everything during the process by taking detailed notes and making copies of any correspondence you've mailed to the court or the creditor's attorney, Donald said. If a judgment is mistakenly entered against you, your documentation may allow you to get a judgment vacated, or voided.
Appear in Court
If the summons requires you to come to court, don't miss your court date. Get help from an attorney if you don't feel comfortable representing yourself. Affordability doesn't have to keep you from seeking help. Consider reaching out to consumer advocate groups or your state bar association for attorneys who will work at a reduced fee or even pro bono, Donald said.
How To Respond to a Court Summons
With small claims lawsuits, many courts include answer forms or templates on the website. An internet search that includes your state and "answer to complaint form" can help you locate the right forms to use.
You can call the clerk of the court listed on the summons to find the right form to use. Court clerks can tell you where to find the forms, but they can't give you advice or guidance for wording your answers.
Your answer should include a response to each of the claims made by the creditor. For each claim, you can make an admission, denial, or state that you don't have enough information to say whether the claim is true. You can also give an affirmative defense, stating why you should not be sued.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What happens if you don’t show up for a court summons?
If you don't show up for a court summons, a judgment will be entered against you. The judgment is the court's official statement that you owe the amount in the lawsuit. You may also be responsible for paying collection costs, interest, or attorney fees.
How do you win a credit card lawsuit?
To win a credit card lawsuit, you first need to respond to the summons. That may mean filing an answer or appearing in court, depending on your state. If you're disputing the lawsuit, you should have a valid reason or defense against the lawsuit and proof that supports your reason.
What happens if you lose a credit card lawsuit?
The court will enter a judgment against you if you lose the lawsuit, but the court doesn't automatically collect payment from you. Instead, it's up to the creditor to collect the judgment amount. Depending on your state, you may be able to appeal the decision and have the judgment vacated if you can show that there was an error if you believe there was an error.