I’ve Been Sued on A Debt but The Court Date Is Over a Year from Now. What Do I Do?

Law Office of Robert L. Firth Feb. 12, 2013

Here in California, the first thing you do is realize that the date on the last page of the papers that were served on you is not the date you are supposed to appear in court! It is the date by which the plaintiff’s attorneys (They are the people who are suing you) have to dismiss the law suit, bring it to trial, or take a “default judgment” against you. It is a trap for the unwary! Too many people think that they don’t have to do anything but appear in court on that date which is found on the last page of the papers (called a “complaint and summons”). By then it is too late. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Time and again I have clients come to me whose wages have been garnished or whose bank accounts have been emptied by a judgment levy because they did nothing with a law suit believing that they didn’t have to appear in court for another several months.

The rules for giving a defendant notice of a lawsuit (called service of process) in California are extremely loose. The process server can (1) give it to you personally, (2) leave at your house with a person ever eighteen years of age, or (3) mail it to you by first class mail. The process server may not have a current address for you, but the process server will still certify to the court that you were legally served because the notice went to your “last known address”.

Once the court receives certification from the process server that you have been served, you as the defendant have thirty days in which to file a written answer with the court. If you don’t file a written answer, the plaintiff’s attorneys will obtain a default judgment against you, but this process usually takes a couple of months. Once the default judgment has been entered against you, your remedies are few. You can try to set aside the judgment or you can try to appeal the judgment. It is hard to do, and almost impossible without a lawyer’s assistance which will cost several thousand dollars in legal fees. Your other option is bankruptcy if you are otherwise eligible.

So what to do if you are sued on a debt? Contact a lawyer! The lawyer can review your options with you. You may wish to file an answer and demand that the plaintiff offer proof that you owe the money (which they may not be able to do!); or you may offer to settle the debt for less than you owe; or you may decide to file bankruptcy which will stop the law suit cold in its tracks and allow you to wipe out the debt. But you won’t know your best course of action until you talk to a lawyer. Many firms, such as mine, will even give you a free initial consultation.