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Being served with a lawsuit for unpaid debt can be scary and stressful. However, it’s important not to panic. What you do next is extremely important. And knowing how to answer a lawsuit for debt collection will mean the difference between successfully resolving your debt or facing severe financial consequences. 

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So if there’s a debt collection lawsuit against you, take a deep breath because solutions are available. Then read on to find out how to answer the lawsuit and craft a game plan.

Debt Collection Process Basics

When you fail to pay a debt, the original creditor will attempt to collect it themselves. You’ll receive letters and phone calls requesting that you pay up. But if you’re unable or unwilling to pay the debt, the original creditor may decide to enlist a debt collector’s help.

The process usually follows these steps:

  • Default: When you stop making payments on a debt, it eventually goes into “default.” This essentially means that you have failed to pay a debt according to the terms of your contract. Default has major negative consequences for your credit and finances in general.
  • Charge-off: If the debt remains unpaid for a significant period (generally 180 days or more for credit card debt), the original creditor may “charge off” the debt. This means they write it off as a loss for accounting purposes. However, this doesn’t mean the debt disappears. You still legally owe the debt.
  • Collections: Once a debt is charged off, the original creditor often turns the account over to an internal collections department, hires a collection attorney, or sells the debt to a third-party buyer. The debt collector then takes over, attempting to recover the funds. You will likely receive many calls and messages regarding your unpaid debt.
  • Legal action: If the debt collector is unsuccessful, they may sue you in court. And if the lawsuit is successful, ajudgment will be entered against you. That means the collection agency can take further action to collect the money you owe, including wage garnishment, putting a lien on your property, and more. 

So You’ve Been Served: How to Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection

If you get served a debt collection lawsuit, taking action immediately is important. Ignoring the lawsuit won’t make it go away. The debt collection law firm can obtain a default judgment against you if you fail to respond.

Carefully read the complaint (the document describing the reasons for the lawsuit). This should include the creditor’s name, the debt amount, and the reason the debt is owed. Then consult an experienced debt relief lawyer (many offer a free initial consultation). A lawyer can provide valuable legal advice, explain your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and similar protections, discuss your options, and even represent you in court. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you may be able to get help from a legal aid organization. 

Next, you’ll need to prepare an “answer” to the lawsuit. This document provides your side of the story. It’s your opportunity to admit or deny the allegations made by the plaintiff. You can also assert any defenses you have. Again, an attorney should help you craft your answer so it’s done right and is not rejected by the court.

Finally, you will file your answer with the court by the deadline stated in the summons. If you miss the deadline, you lose your opportunity to be heard and could face a default judgment. 

Let’s take a closer look at this process.

Understanding the Summons and Complaint

A lawsuit is initiated when the plaintiff (the party bringing the lawsuit) files a complaint in court. The complaint outlines the plaintiff’s allegations against the defendant (the party being sued), the harm allegedly suffered, and the legal remedy the plaintiff seeks.

Once the complaint is filed, a copy of it and a document called a “summons” must be served to the defendant. The summons informs the defendant that they are being sued, in which court the case was filed, and how much time they have to respond (usually, 20-30 days, depending on how and where you were served). The process of serving these documents is referred to as “service of process.”

How to Prepare Your Answer 

If you’ve been served with a debt collection lawsuit, preparing an answer is an important step:

  1. Review the complaint: This document outlines the case against you. It states the claims being made, the evidence being used to support these claims, and the relief being sought.
  2. Consult a debt help attorney: The legal language in a lawsuit can be complex. It’s helpful to consult with an attorney to understand the lawsuit and how best to respond.
  3. Prepare your answer: In your answer, you’ll respond to the allegations made in the complaint. Typically, you’ll go through each paragraph of the complaint and either admit (if the statement is true and cannot be disputed), deny (if the statement is false), or state that you lack the knowledge to admit or deny (if you cannot truthfully admit or deny the statement).
  4. Raise any defenses: Include any defenses you may have in your answer. For example, if the debt is too old, you could assert the statute of limitations as a defense. You could assert identity theft or mistaken identity if the debt isn’t yours. You can assert payment as a defense if you’ve already paid the debt. These are just a few common defenses — your attorney will be able to determine the best approach. If you have claims against the plaintiff, you might also include counterclaims in your answer.
  5. File and serve your answer: You must file it with the same court where the lawsuit was filed by the deadline. After you’ve filed your answer, you’ll also need to serve a copy of your answer to the plaintiff or their attorney.
  6. Keep a paper trail: Keep copies of all documents related to the case, including the summons and complaint, your answer, and any other paperwork. Send all written communications by certified mail.

What Happens After You File Your Answer?

After you respond (file an “answer”) to a lawsuit for debt collection, the lawsuit enters a phase called “discovery.” Here’s a general outline of what may happen:

Discovery Phase

Both parties exchange information that pertains to the lawsuit. This might include requests for documents, written questions to be answered under oath (interrogatories), or oral questions to be answered under oath (depositions).

Motions

After the discovery phase, or sometimes during it, one or both parties might file motions with the court. These can request a variety of things. For example, one common type of motion in debt collection lawsuits is for summary judgment, in which the plaintiff asks the court to decide the case in their favor based on the evidence presented without going to trial. This happens when you do not have a valid legal defense.

Pre-Trial Settlement Discussions

The parties may engage in negotiations to settle the debt out of court. If a settlement is reached, it will involve you agreeing to pay the plaintiff a reduced, lump-sum amount of money to resolve the case. Alternatively, you may be able to work out a reduced payment plan to satisfy the debt and end the debt lawsuit.

Trial

If the case isn’t resolved through settlement, and if no motion has disposed of the case, then the matter goes to trial. Both sides will present their case during the trial, and the judge will decide the outcome. This can take a long time and be costly.

Judgment

If you’re successful, the case against you will be dropped. However, if you lose at trial, a judgment will be issued against you for the amount the court determines you owe for the debt with costs. This means the debt collector has established a legal right to collect the debt in question. From there, they can garnish wages, levy bank accounts, or place liens on property, depending on your state’s laws.

It’s important to have legal representation if possible, throughout this process, as the laws and procedures can be complex. 

Hiring legal help for a debt lawsuit can seem daunting, especially when you’re already under financial stress. However, you don’t necessarily need to face the lawsuit alone. 

Contact your local Bar Association for a referral, or use an online search legal directory to find reputable lawyers specializing in debt defense in your area. Some lawyers offer a free initial consultation for debt help, allowing you to discuss your case and understand the possible legal strategies without paying any attorney fees upfront.

When you’re meeting with potential lawyers to discuss your debt matters, present your debt collection case clearly and honestly, and be sure to ask lots of questions, such as:

  • What can you expect from the process?
  • Have they handled similar cases with the creditor in the past?
  • What were the results of those cases?
  • What are their fees, and how are they structured?

Speaking of fees, legal debt help can seem expensive, especially if you’re already facing court costs. But it’s important to understand the costs upfront. Lawyers can charge by the hour, a flat fee for specific services or on a contingency basis. Ask for a written estimate of the potential costs when seeking assistance from a debt relief attorney.

If you can’t afford a lawyer, look into free or low-cost legal aid organizations that help connect legal professionals with people who can’t afford legal help. You can find these services through your state or local Bar Association or the Legal Services Corporation’s online directory.

Remember, you’re hiring a lawyer to work for you. They should be someone you feel comfortable with, who understands your situation, and who communicates clearly about the potential outcomes and strategies for your case. You should feel that you can work with them to resolve your debt.

How Tayne Law Can Help

Tayne Law Group is a New York-based debt relief law firm that has been helping clients find resolutions for their debt for more than 20 years. If you’re being sued by a creditor, have a debt collection matter, credit card debt, student loan, or business debt like an MCA, or think a collection law firm will sue you, call us today to discuss how we may be able to help you put together a strategy to resolve your debt and avoid a lawsuit.  Call us at (866) 890-7337 for a free phone consultation with our experienced and helpful staff. You can also fill out our short contact form, and someone from the office will contact you. We never sell or share your information, and all discussions are confidential.

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