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How to file in Small Claims Court

by | Aug 14, 2023 | Small Claims Court

Pro per in Small Claims court wins

Reading time: 25 minutes.

This guide is all you need to evaluate and bring your Small Claims action to conclusion. It should be called the Small Claims Tutorial. So, grab your coffee and get ready to become a Small Claims Court expert. It’s pretty exciting since a layperson really can’t become a legal expert in any other forum due to complexity, but in Small Claims Court you can. It is the People’s Court where pro se litigants can shine.

The Legal System Has Finally Turned a Corner

The Coronavirus was just the thing that finally caused the legal system to transform. Who’d a thought? When the attorneys, judges, parties, and witnesses can’t be in one another’s presence, something big has got to give. And it did!

Zoom became the answer for so many business and social platforms. For the legal system where time is of the essence and in-person appearance is necessary it was an obvious answer. Now we have remote Mediation, Arbitration, and Small Claims Court proceedings, and sometimes even some Superior Court appearances.

online dispute resolution is done from your computer

New & Better Platforms Have Surfaced

But it hasn’t stopped there. At long last, the dream of the Small Claims user has come true. More than half of the states have joined a central platform where Small Claims pro se litigants can access all the forms needed for their dispute, are guided through an interview to help them get it right, and lo and behold, to file the forms right then and there.

Online prompts help you describe your case, name Defendants, and choose the correct county and state to file your Claim in. Defendants also can access the portal to complete and file their forms.

Small Claims Court Limits Have Increased

Small Claims Court limits have also increased. As of this writing, limits range from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on your state. Hopefully, now that legal transformation is taking place, all states will soon have increased limits so that disputing parties can bring a wider range of actions in the Small Claims Court.

Nationwide Small Claims Court is the Venue of choice

As long as the value of your case is within its limits, Small Claims Court is your forum. Fill out a few forms and you’re off to court in a couple of months or less. The whole process couldn’t be easier – a significant departure from the complexities of the Superior Courts.

☞  In a few states courts for Small Claims have different names, like Justice of the Peace Court and a few other variations. Don’t balk if you can’t locate a Small Claims Court in your state. Every state has them, some just have different names for them. They are entry-level civil courts.

 Do everything you can to bring your case within the Small Claims Court limit, including reducing the value of your claim. This is the People’s Court like none other. Follow these instructions, do the best you can, and get it done now so you can move on to more productive areas of your life.

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Your Small Claims Court Roadmap

Stay focused on these steps in the following order and you will be a Small Claims expert in no time.

  1. Work your case through Lawsuit Analyzer©
  2. Complete the steps in When & Where to File My Lawsuit
  3. Name your Defendants
  4. Perform a Collectability Assessment
  5. Assess the possibility of a Countersuit
  6. Decide whether to hire an attorney
  7. Prepare and send a Demand Letter to each Defendant
  8. Decide if you want to engage in Automated Negotiation or Mediation
  9. Follow the Steps on the Small Claims Court website you will file in
  10. Prepare your Claim and attachments
  11. File your Claim and serve it on your Defendant(s)
  12. Engage in Automated Negotiation and/or Mediation if elected in Step 8
  13. Your hearing | Appeal rights
  14. Have your judgment entered and begin collection procedures

Step 1: Work Your Case Through Lawsuit Analyzer©

Lawsuit Analyzer© is a series of 32 questions answered with the assistance of detailed Help information, receiving a point score as you go along. Lawsuit Analyzer© is a one-of-a-kind program featured on Good Morning America, CNBC, and CBN and recommended by the American Arbitration Association as “a practical system designed to help analyze a dispute”. Lawsuit Analyzer© performs a critical seven-phase analysis:

 

  • Phase 1, Legal Evaluation: Assesses your likelihood of winning based on the legal issues
  • Phase 2, Damages Assessment:  Assesses the value of your case and your realistic recovery
  • Phase 3, Legal Options Assessment:  Evaluates your case based on the legal options available for your dispute
  • Phase 4, Collectability Assessment:  Analyzes your chance of collecting on any judgment you receive
  • Phase 5, Comprehensive Case Analysis:  Quantifies your case value and settlement value, based on your gross, recoverable and net damages, and assigns a case feasibility rating
  • Phase 6, Feasibility Assessment:  Takes your feasibility rating and recommends detailed steps based on your score
  • Phase 7, Forum Assessment:  Assigns the forum you will enter – Mediation, Arbitration, Small Claims Court, or the Upper Civil Court
lawsuit analysis is like putting the puzzle together

Once you complete Lawsuit Analyzer©, you will have a good understanding of:

  • The feasibility of your dispute
  • The recovery you may net
  • An estimated settlement value
  • Your likelihood of collecting from your adversary
  • The correct forum for your dispute

But, even more importantly, you will understand the law applied to your case as you are coached through extensive Help information. For more information on the Lawsuit Analyzer©, go to Lawsuit Analyzer©.

Step 2: Complete the Steps in When & Where to File My Lawsuit

This important step determines which county and civil court to file your case in and whether your case meets its filing deadline. Don’t miss this step, especially the 🍪Smart Cookie Tip in Step 3 which alerts you to the possibility of choosing a state with the highest case value limit.

House of Horrors = Upper Civil Courts

Do everything you can to squeeze your case into Small Claims Court to avoid the House of Horrors and the Litigation Frenzy that accompanies it.

🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: If you are headed for the House of Horrors due to case value, consider how much of your potential recovery you will give up to your attorney (are you giving up 1/3 of your recovery?). This factor may make it worthwhile to reduce your case value to come within the Small Claims Court limit.

Step 3: Name Your Defendants

You can sue anyone and any entity you feel is responsible for your damages. But there is a certain recipe to naming your Defendants correctly. The judgment you receive, if successful, will be in their name. You want it to be the correct name and match the assets you locate in your Collectability Assessment, below. See Naming & Finding Defendants for more information on this subject.

Step 4: Perform a Collectability Assessment

What about collection? Is there any guarantee that your opponent will pay your judgment if you win? Will you be able to collect through judgment enforcement procedures which will require more time and expense on your part? Even if you have an Attorney Fee Provision and a judgment, you’re still out the money unless you collect.

You want to assess collectability upfront before you file suit. If the court decides in your favor, it doesn’t handle collection for you. So, before you sue, always weigh the feasibility of collecting on your judgment.

When you worked your way through Lawsuit Analyzer© you should have researched your adversary’s financial status, but take the time now to go deeper. Follow the steps at Collectability. Otherwise, your judgment could be an expensive piece of paper to remind you not to do this again unless you have a ‘juicy’ Defendant.

🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: Lawsuit Analyzer© performs a Collectability Assessment by asking you to choose your adversary’s financial status from an extensive list. See Collectability for more on this critically important subject. Do not skip this important step.

Step 5: Assess the Possibility of a Countersuit

Always consider that in most states your opponent has the right to countersue you if their Claim arises out of the same event as yours, which results in your becoming both a Plaintiff in your case against them and a Defendant in their case against you. In those states, if the Defendant doesn’t countersue, they give up their right to later sue you.

Some Defendants countersue just to gain leverage. If you are in a state that permits Countersuits, don’t be shocked if you receive a Countersuit when they reply. Weigh the possibility that this will happen. Assess whether it might be better to just let sleeping dogs lie if there is a reasonable likelihood that a Countersuit might be successful against you.

hiring an attorney to represent you

Step 6: Decide Whether to Hire an Attorney

Lawsuit Analyzer© gives you a link to the Small Claims Court where your case should be filed so you can determine if attorney representation is permitted. In a handful of states, including California, attorneys are prohibited from Small Claims Court (unless appearing for an entity) with the intent of achieving equal footing between disputing parties. Neither party has an attorney to manipulate the case.

If attorney representation is permitted in the state you will file in, does it make sense to hire an attorney? Your first inquiry to answer this question is, Do you have an Attorney Fee Provision in a written agreement with your adversary? These provisions generally provide that if a dispute occurs, the prevailing party will be entitled to their Attorney Fees.

Remember this word entitled. Entitled doesn’t mean collect, it just means your judgment will include the Attorney Fees you paid. If you can’t collect on your judgment due to your opponent’s financial status, you won’t collect the Attorney Fees you paid as you went along.

🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: If you have an Attorney Fee Provision, this provision is a two-edged sword because if you lose your case, you’ll be paying your adversary’s Attorney Fees if they hire an attorney. Sometimes the provision says just one party will recover their attorney fees. Most courts will treat this provision reciprocally with all signing parties entitled to recover their Attorney Fees if they prevail.

If you don’t have an Attorney Fee Provision, it may not make economic sense to hire counsel. Most people, even those with an Attorney Fee Provision, don’t hire counsel recognizing that Small Claims Court is a do-it-yourself system. Several studies show that people who represent themselves in Small Claims Court cases usually do just as well as those who are represented. But if your case is of higher value, you might look twice at hiring counsel.

Small Claims Court does its best to protect the self-help character of the People’s Court, a place where disputing parties can speak for themselves in plain English and not much credence is given to the fancy colloquy of attorneys.

🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: If attorneys are allowed in your state, you can agree with your adversary that neither of you will be represented to preserve the status quo and conserve costs. See Self-Representation Agreement for a sample.

If you decide to hire an attorney, review Hiring an Attorney.

Step 7: Prepare and Send a Demand Letter to Each Defendant

It’s always best to resolve your dispute. You’ve probably tried. After some time has passed, another attempt before filing suit may be more successful. Prepare a concise Demand Letter and email or snail mail with tracking (i.e., 3-day USPS) to your adversary. Most Small Claims Courts want to see that

you have taken this step before accessing their forum anyway. Your Demand Letter will form the basis of the Claim you file, so do it right.

The Demand Letter explains why you’re owed money, asking that it be paid within a specific timeframe, such as 20 days, to be followed by a lawsuit if not paid. It should lay out the reasons why your adversary is liable for your loss and itemize and substantiate the damages you are claiming.

🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: If you plan to hire an attorney, send the Demand Letter to your attorney for review or to use as a basis for their own demand letter which would be taken more seriously than yours.

With this type of written demand, your adversary will take you more seriously. They must now confront the very real likelihood that you plan to have your day in court against them. They must face the fact that soon they will have to expend money, time, and energy to publicly defend their position and possibly become liable for your damages. What was previously an unwilling adversary can transform into a willing one when faced with a written demand threatening litigation.

Go to Demand Letter for more information about preparing your Demand Letter.

automated online negotiation and mediation bring settlement

Step 8: Engage in Automated Negotiation or Mediation

If the Demand Letter doesn’t resolve your dispute, consider Automated Online Negotiation or Mediation. To get the most out of these processes, you may want to file your Small Claims Court action first. This will heighten your adversary’s motivation to settle since the next step is to go to Small Claims Court.

The timing of this would be first file the Small Claims Court action and get the Defendant(s) served, then participate in Automated Online Negotiation. If that doesn’t resolve your dispute, schedule Mediation to be heard shortly thereafter. These out-of-court processes are voluntary, so you’ll have to obtain your adversary’s consent.

Engage in Automated Online Negotiation

Automated Online Negotiation (AON) is a novel new online platform like an auction where the prize is a settlement. It’s quick. It’s inexpensive. It’s easy. And there is nothing personal about it, such a positive when disputing parties are at odds.

This type of negotiation, referred to as blind bidding, is available to anyone wanting to resolve a legal dispute that can be addressed by the payment of money. It is ideal for matters where liability is undisputed, where the unknown is how much money should be paid. It can also be utilized when liability is unclear to whittle a party’s offer to an acceptable number.

AON could be just the thing to get your dispute resolved at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end, where other processes have failed.

It’s worth a try. What’s there to lose? 

→ It’s Do-It-Yourself

And it’s DIY, the perfect solution for the Legal Self-Helper. You and your disputing party can do it without attorneys, mediators, arbitrators, or the court. The usual paraphernalia associated with legal solutions is absent. No presenting your case, posturing, waiting around while everybody gets a turn. 

All that’s needed is you and your adversary online not even at the same time, hopefully motivated to dispose of this mess that will undoubtedly disrupt your peace of mind. It’s more like a game that doesn’t require much stratagem other than arriving at price points. It’s not heady, like Chess. It’s more like Bingo. When the numbers line up you’ve got a winner. 

Currently, this is how it works. It is all done on an online platform. There are three bidding rounds. Settlement offers hidden by the software are proposed by each party. If the bids come within a predetermined range the automated system selects the midpoint and that becomes the settlement amount, subject to the terms of a settlement agreement provided by these platforms. That’s pretty much it. 

Some of these platforms even process payment, right there on the spot. You can do it any number of times throughout your dispute. So simple, yet quite effective since it could easily end the dispute that’s been your number one stressor for years or could be.

→ An ADR Agreement Option

Negotiation is one of the optional provisions in our ADR Agreements where in advance of any other proceedings the parties proceed to Automated Online Negotiation. This is a sample provision:

AUTOMATED ONLINE NEGOTIATION: Within 30 days of the date of this Agreement, the parties agree to submit their dispute to Automated Online Negotiation. If a settlement is not reached, the parties shall proceed to the next step under this Agreement.

→ Providers

AON is relatively new for legal disputes. There are a few private and court- sponsored providers. We expect new companies to spring up in no time at all.

⇒ Private Providers

One private provider is National Arbitration & Mediation. Perform an internet search of automated dispute negotiation or blind bidding dispute negotiation to locate other providers.

⇒ Court-Annexed Providers

AON is new to the courts also. They also see its advantage since it is being implemented in some locales to assist primarily self-represented parties in Small Claims cases so far. It has not reached the Upper Civil Courts yet.

This 4-minute video was prepared by the New York courts to explain the automated negotiation process. Remember, this is New York; the laws of your state could be different. This process also provides the option of moving your dispute directly into Mediation if AON fails.

🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: See if this platform is available in the forum where your dispute belongs. This is quite a novel innovation for the very traditional court system, so use is spotty thus far. https://www.courtinnovations.com

The courts that do make the negotiation process automatically available make it readily accessible to you. For instance, in some California Small  Claims Courts, once the court receives the email address of all parties, an invitation to online negotiation is sent to each. The parties negotiate themselves via an online chat platform (like texting) and if they feel a mediator is needed, one is invited to the platform. If an agreement is reached before your court date, the case is dismissed.

Engage in Mediation

Many Small Claims Courts offer non-profit dispute resolution programs that provide free or low-cost Mediation before or after a Claim is filed. The Small Claims Court where you will file your Claim should have this service available or can refer you out. Some courts automatically offer Mediation either before

the hearing or on the day of the hearing. Talk to the Small Claims Court Advisor or the Small Claims Court Clerk to find out more about the services offered in your locale. For more detailed information on Mediation, go here Mediation.

Your plan should include Small Claims court websites

Step 9: Follow the Steps on the Small Claims Court Website You Will File in

Technology has put the law in the hands of the layperson, especially when it comes to Small Claims Court. The number of self-represented litigants has grown immeasurably causing courts to respond by improving access to speedy justice and making Small Claims Courts more user-friendly.

Most states and counties have websites rich with information guiding you through the entire Small Claims Court process, including providing you with the forms to get your case started. A saving grace most folks are unaware of is that these days some states have all their forms online, although finding them can be quite the odyssey. For instance, most California forms are here. Under the category Small Claims, you will find most forms used in the Small Claims process.

What’s even better – it’s actually a dream come true – is the emergence of an online platform still in its beginning stages that allows Small Claims Court users in most states to complete and file their legal documents online. Not only this, but online interviews guide you through your legal dispute so you can choose the correct forum, complete the forms correctly, and direct file them with the court. And it’s 100% free since the courts pay for it to free up their personnel!

🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: As of this writing, it is nearly impossible to locate these resources that will undoubtedly filter into the mainstream over time. But we can point you there. http://www.guideandfile.com This is their marketing piece: If you are representing yourself in court, you can now create and file many court forms on the internet. Like popular tax preparation software, you will be guided through a series of questions. Your answers will help automatically prepare and file your court forms online.

It doesn’t get much better than this. Check out the link above and see if this platform has reached your state. If so, in Step 10 prepare your Claim on its platform. If not, your state may be up very soon.

If you cannot wait for your state to join the Guide and File platform, go to both the state and county Small Claims Court websites for the locations identified in Steps 1 and 2. Compare the two and use the one that is best which is typically the county website.

Many forms available on these websites are fillable on your computer (for instance, California’s Claim form). On the last page of the form, carefully review the very detailed instructions which provide links to other forms and information. Most forms provide this type of valuable information.

If you cannot locate an informative site for your state, follow California’s which is probably similar to your state except for the forms.

  • Let’s use CA for illustration This website is chockful of guidance.
  • This website also has an entire section devoted to self-help including the Small Claims Court process.
  • This site provides brief videos for Small Claims users, to know exactly what to expect in the process. Click the three horizontal lines in the upper right corner of a video for a playlist to access just the information you’re after.

    🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: Have an online service do it all for you for about $100. Perform an Internet Search for Small Claims Claim preparation or just go here. These platforms won’t provide the detail described below, so you will still prepare your Claim according to Step 10 and hand it to the bailiff before the hearing.

    Step 10: Prepare Your Claim and Attachments

    Your Claim

    Prepare your Claim on the platform identified in Step 9. Your Claim will include the following information:

    • A concise summary of the facts
    • The law that says the Defendant is at fault
    • Your damages itemized with support

    The Small Claims Court forms typically do not provide enough space to advocate your case intelligently or a way to attach and reference exhibits. You’ll probably need to attach a declaration signed by you concisely stating additional information and attaching documents to support your Claim (see below).

    🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: All attached documents should be listed in your Declaration as Exhibits, and each should be labeled with that Exhibit number. For instance, Ex. 1, Invoice dated          for replacement of damaged bicycle.

    Exhibits

    Person 1, Plaintiff v. Person 2, Defendant, San Francisco Small Claims No. xxxx

    Exhibit List 

    1. Plaintiff’s Declaration
    2. Demand Letter to Defendant.
    3. Contract with Defendant for $7,200.
    4. Advance payment of $3,600.
    5. Defendant’s Invoice for $8,800, $3,600 for the remainder of our contract and extras of $5,200, for a total of $12,400.
    6. Plaintiff’s check for $8,800.
    7. Computer consultant expert declaration and resume.

     

    Declarations from you and others are encouraged instead of live testimony which consumes too much time. Most courts have form declarations for your use (see California’s declaration form; this form is for Superior court, so you will need to adapt it to Small Claims Court). It is easier to present a Declaration instead of live witnesses, especially given the brief amount of time you have to present your case. Below is an example of such a declaration:

    Person 1, Plaintiff v. Person 2, Defendant, San Francisco Small Claims No. xxxx
    Declaration of Plaintiff, Exhibit 1.

    I,  xxxx, declare as follows:

    1. Before filing this Claim, I sent Ex. 2 to Defendant and never received a response.
    2. I am a Social Security Consultant with four employees. I hired Defendant
    3. on (date) to upgrade my business computer system and we signed the attached contract for $7200. (Ex. 3 ). The contract amount was to be a fixed fee inclusive of all costs, including materials.
    4. Half of the fee was due upfront to pay for materials. My check for $3,600 is attached as Ex. 4.
    5. Defendant charged me $12,400 in total. (Ex. 5). Defendant stated that the
    6. $5,200 overage was because our contract did not include materials. This is not mentioned in our contract nor was it in our conversations that materials were not included in the fee.
    7. My billing clerk is authorized to sign checks under $10,000. In addition to the $3,600 originally paid, invoices totaling $8,800 were paid by my office when received. (Ex. 6)
    8. Exhibit 7 is a Declaration and attached resume from xxxx, a computer consultant with 25 years of experience, who states that the value of the computer upgrade is $5850.
    9. The contract between Defendant and I was prepared by Defendant. (State) Code of Civil section  xxxx holds that: “A contract is construed against the drafting party.” Defendant claims that the contract was for just his time. If that were the case, the contract should have said this fee is for labor only, materials are extra. The contract should be construed against Defendant.
    10. I am asking for $6,550, the difference between the amount paid ($12,400) and the value of the upgrade ($5,850).

    I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct and of my own personal knowledge. This Declaration was signed by me on  xxxx  at (city) (state). [Remember to find out if a declaration in your state needs to be notarized.]

    /s/ Plaintiff

    The above Claim should be assembled as follows. They should all be filed together if possible.

    • Claim
    • Exhibit List
    • All Exhibits

    If you cannot achieve this kind of detail on the platform you are using, bring the additional documents to the hearing with you or use another platform that will accommodate the above-recommended package.

    Online or In-person Hearing

    Small Claims Court doesn’t take long. Most disputes are heard within two or three months from when the Claim is filed. The hearing itself seldom takes more than fifteen minutes. The judge sometimes announces the decision right there in the courtroom, but most often mails it within a few days to a few weeks. 

    Before you file your Claim, you need to decide if you want to appear at the hearing remotely, by Zoom. Some locales are set up for this; some are not. The Coronavirus Pandemic changed the world we live in and the courts we submit our disputes to. We now have the ability to conduct aspects of our lives online instead of in person. There are many advantages to participating in your hearing online:

    • You don’t have to fight traffic and parking to get there and back
    • You won’t be subject to the disempowerment that accompanies an in-court hearing
    • You won’t have to be in person in the presence of your adversary(s)

    🍪 Smart Cookie Tip:  If you choose online, you will need to determine whether your locale offers that choice and what is needed to make that choice. It can be quite challenging to dig up this information on the court’s websites, so the most direct route is to call the Small Claims Court Clerk or check with the Small Claims Court Advisor (which can sometimes be done by chat on the court’s Small Claims Court website).

    If your locale is set up for an online hearing, you may have to file additional documents with your Claim requesting permission to do so. Here to download a sample package that is required to be filed in San Francisco Small Claims Court. Online appearance there requires approval by the court in advance.

    Step 11: File Your Claim and Serve it on Your Defendant(s)

    In states on the new Guide and File platform e-filing should be available, and service of your Claim and other documents is sometimes also available. Check the portal you have selected.

    Service of your Claim on the Defendant, your opposing party, is essential. If you are not using a court-affiliated online portal for service, hire the sheriff or a private process server. It is essential that service be performed correctly.

    Following service, the Proof of Service attesting to service on your opposing party is filed with the court before having your case heard. If the Proof of Service is not on file, the court will not hear your case.

    Step 12: Engage in Automated Online Negotiation and/or Mediation

    If you and your opponent have agreed to engage in Automated Online Negotiation or Mediation, take those steps now. If your dispute settles, thankfully remove it from the court’s calendar.

    Step 13: Your Hearing | Appeal Rights

    Evidence

    At your hearing you will present your testimony (we suggest by Declaration and orally), witness testimony (usually by declaration only), and documentary evidence. If any documents you want to present or refer to were not filed with your Claim, make sure they are labeled as Exhibits (continuing from the numbered Exhibits that were filed) and provide copies to the Judge and the other party(s) via the bailiff either in advance before the calendar is called (when court is called to order) or when your case is called.

    The simple rule for Small Claims Court is to be organized, stay focused, and be concise. Find out ahead of time how long you have to present your case. It’s probably only 10-15 minutes. You want to gear your timing so you don’t leave out important points. Practice at least once (or ten times) at home. You will gain credibility if you know what you’re doing.

    Your presentation should step the judge through the facts, the law, your damages, and why the Defendant is responsible. You need to back up your story with evidence because the Defendant is going to say the exact opposite. One of the best ways to prove your case is by third-party evidence such as declarations signed under oath, in-person testimony, letters, photographs, and invoices.

    🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: Everybody is nervous in court. Courts are disempowering, intentionally so.

    Don’t be emotional. The judge is busy and has heard hundreds of stories like yours. Your case is not special to him or her. Speak slowly and loudly. This helps to ward off nervousness and makes you appear more believable.

    Address the Judge as Your Honor and the other party as Defendant. Use your Claim and attachments as your guide. As you make your presentation refer to each document by Exhibit number or name if no exhibit number.

    Your presentation will be so much easier if you follow this format. Read your Declaration as your testimony. The judge will not have had time to read it beforehand, even if filed with your Claim. If the case is taken under submission (a decision will be sent by mail, which is typical) chances are the Judge may later review your Claim where your declaration will be in black and white. This is a great advantage for you.

    Witness Testimony

    In most courts witness testimony can be live in court or in writing. Your state’s legal requirement for written witness testimony dictates whether the writing must be a notarized Affidavit or if a Declaration under Penalty of Perjury will suffice. Go to your state’s Small Claims Court website and follow the format suggested.

    It is so much more convenient to submit written testimony than to have a live witness unless you are in a state where the Small Claims Court limit is high, and your case value is also. Here, live testimony might be a better choice, at least for your most important witnesses.

    🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: But, then again, with live testimony and the ability of your adversary and the court to cross-examine, you also risk the dreaded surprise which cannot happen with written testimony.

    If you need the testimony of someone who will not voluntarily come to court for you or even a voluntary witness who is unreliable, subpoena them. When you file your Claim, obtain Subpoena forms and have them served on the person directing them to appear at your hearing. [California’s form is here.]

    There is no need to Subpoena voluntary witnesses, people who agree to come to your hearing and testify for you, as long as they show up! You can also Subpoena records that have not been made available to you otherwise.

    You can ask questions of all parties and live witnesses at your hearing if you have time. It goes quickly. Don’t be surprised if the judge says there is not enough time for this.

    Receive the Decision

    Typically, the judge will take the matter under submission and mail the decision to you within a month or so.

    Appeal Rights.

    Appeal rights depend on the rules of the state where you file your Claim. Many states allow the losing party to appeal within a certain timeframe, usually between 10 and 30 days, and obtain a new hearing. Some states do not allow the Plaintiff to appeal. In some states, appeals must be based on the contention that the judge made a legal mistake, and not on the facts of the case. Other states have their own unique rules.

    An appeal often allows you to present your case all over again to another judge from start to finish. People sometimes hire attorneys to represent them on appeal. This is where an expense comes in – through the Small Claims Court Appellate door.

    Some losing parties appeal just to gain leverage, not really because they have appeal rights. They can’t stand to lose, want to make you pay the price for it, or want to delay the inevitable. There’s nothing you can do about this except go for the ride and attempt to settle along the way.

    Collecting on a judgment

    Step 14: Have your Judgment Entered & Begin Collection Procedures

    Once the judgment is entered into the court’s records, everything changes. Plaintiff’s status changes to a creditor and Defendant now becomes the debtor. If you thought being a Defendant was bad, now you wear the debtor label.

    In most states (we’re highlighting California here, but most states follow suit), the debtor has 30 days after the judgment is entered before he or she must pay you. During this time, the debtor can:

    • Voluntarily pay the judgment
    • Ask the court to order an installment payment plan. In most states, if requested by the debtor the judge can order payment of the judgment in installments over time. California’s form to make this request is here, which also includes the debtor’s Financial Statement
    • File an appeal
    • Fill out and send you a Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (Form SC-133)

    Review the Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets, above. It is chockful of information. The court is doing a great job of guiding you through the collection of your judgment. There is a multitude of ways to collect on a judgment and easy-to-complete forms to help you seize the debtor’s assets, at least in California. If the debtor completes their assets list accurately, you just grab the collection form that fits the asset of your choice, and away you go.

    🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: Click here for a link to one of California’s Small Claims Court’s informationals to guide you through this process and provide you with all the forms.

    Most often the debtor doesn’t complete the Statement of Assets or is less than transparent, so you move on to the next step to enforce your judgment. In lay terms, this means go digging for assets. Although Most states have methods set up and specific forms to help you do this, it doesn’t happen automatically. You need to be aware of the steps and take them.

    In California enforcing your judgment when the debtor’s Statement of Assets is incomplete is to initiate a formal proceeding called a Judgment Debtor Examination where you will obtain asset information directly from your debtor’s lips (Form SC-134). Other states have similar proceedings.

    You can ask about where the debtor works, how much he or she earns, bank accounts, stocks, other income sources, property and belongings, and

    anything else that can be used (or sold) to pay the judgment. It’s humiliating and quite invasive, but it is what happens when one becomes a debtor in the court system.

    Click here for California’s list of suggested questions. You can also subpoena the debtor’s paycheck stubs, bank records, deeds for any property he or she owns, and similar documents that prove the existence and value of the debtor’s property.

    Small Claims Court, the People’s Court, makes it easy to scoop up your debtor’s assets. Go to your state’s Small Claims or Self-Help website to locate the many available forms, each of which typically describes the rigmarole associated with each.

    A Judgment as a Good Investment

    Your Small Claims Court judgment bears the post-judgment interest rate in your state until paid – in some states as high as 10% per year. Determine the post-judgment interest rate in the state you have filed your Claim in by accessing their website information.

    High interest is an inducement for the losing party to pay your judgment as soon as possible – or for you to sit back and wait as long as possible to be paid on your new investment with a 10% rate of return! Review Collectability for more on this subject.

    🍪 Smart Cookie Tip: In most states, if the debtor owns real estate there is a simple method of recording the judgment as a lien against their property.

    Congratulations! You have completed the most comprehensive Small Claims tutorial ever. You are now inducted into:

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