Sometimes, debt becomes seemingly impossible to pay. If you are late enough, you may get served papers for debt. Discover what to do and expect.
After being served papers for debt, you must attend a hearing. If you don't attend, you will likely lose automatically. This can lead to the court serving a lien against your house or car, garnishing your wages, or freezing your bank account.
Continue reading to learn more details about what happens when you get served, how to prepare for the hearing, and what else to expect.
What Happens When You Get Served
You know that missed payments negatively affect your credit score. You also hopefully know that they can be sent to collections. But you may not realize that if you don't pay your bill after a certain amount of time, you can be sued.
A debt collection lawsuit is a type of civil suit. Since it is a lawsuit, you get "served" papers for debt. Discover what happens during a suit and before you even receive the papers.
Can a Debt Collector Serve You Papers?
The short answer is yes. Debt collectors can serve you papers, but they need to do a few things first.
To start, the creditor goes to the state civil court and files a complaint with you (and any co-signer) as the defendant. In this complaint, they must outline why they are suing you and their goal.
For most debt collections, they will want you to give them the money you owe in addition to interest. They may also want to receive court costs and attorney fees.
After the complaint is filed, you can be "served" with the papers. This simply means giving you a copy of the complaint they filed along with a summons to attend court.
The summons will include all of the information you need. You will see the date of your hearing. You will also see how and when to file your formal response.
What Creditors Have to Do Before Filing the Claim
It is also important to know that you will have received a letter or call about the debt collection before they take this step. They will typically do this when your debt is 180 days late.
From there, they have five days to send a debt validation letter. This will list the creditor's name and the amount owed. It will also tell you how to dispute the debt.
You will then be able to ask for a verification letter. If you request one, the creditor has 30 days to send it.
At this point, you would have the option to directly contact the creditor to work out a payment plan. If you don't do so, then they can file the claim and serve you papers.
Debt Collector Trying to Serve Papers – What Collectors Expect
Debt collectors typically assume that people will not attend their hearing for debts.
This makes their job incredibly easy, as the judge will usually make a default judgment.
If you get a default judgment, then the creditor may have several options of recouping the lost funds from you. These can include:
- Placing a lien on your car, house, or other property
- Garnishing your wages
- Freezing your bank account (part or all)
Because of the consequences of a default judgment, you want to make sure to follow up with the court summons.
Being Served Papers for a Debt – What to Do Next
Your goal is to avoid one of the consequences mentioned above, such as a lien or having your wages garnished.
To improve your chances, or at least minimize the amount you owe, you will want to do a few important things.
Research the Debt and Statute of Limitations
Start by looking into the debt. Although possible, it is very rare for the original creditor to be the company suing you. It is much more likely that they sold your debt to a collection agency. In fact, it may have been sold repeatedly, passing through several collection agencies.
The good news is that you don't have to start from scratch when trying to figure out what debt you were served for. It should be mentioned in the validation letter that the debt collectors sent you. You should also look at your records to figure out which debt it is.
Confirm the Debt Accuracy
Part of the reason you want to look at your own records is to confirm that you do, in fact, owe a debt. You should also confirm that the amount you owe is accurately represented.
Errors become more likely the more times that the debt was sold.
Confirm It Is Not Past the Statute of Limitations
The other thing you want to confirm is whether your debt is old enough for the statute of limitations to apply. If the statute of limitations is already over, your debt is "time-barred." This essentially means that you cannot be sued for the debt.
While you can't legally be sued for a time-barred debt, that won't necessarily stop debtors from trying to do so.
It is also important to remember that you still have a legal obligation to pay the time-barred debt. As such, it still hurts your credit score.
File Your Response
In most cases, you will have 20 to 30 days to file your response after being served.
Expect a fee for filing the response. You may be eligible for a fee waiver.
Strongly Consider Working With an Attorney
You definitely want to file a response, and it can be very helpful to hire an attorney. They will help you navigate the complexities of writing your response and creating a defense.
Your attorney will likely highlight defenses that you may not have realized were possible.
They will also help you write your response. This is important, as their response may be more complete than what you would have written. This can increase the chances that the creditor will decide to reach a deal with you instead of pursuing the debt in court.
If your debt makes it to the hearing, your attorney will also represent you there. That representation can help significantly, especially if the collector can't verify the debt. In this case, it may be dismissed.
Hiring an attorney is sometimes easier said than done. After all, if you have a debt that went to collections, you may not be able to afford attorney fees.
Luckily, there are some solutions that make it possible for most people to find an attorney:
- Some attorneys will offer free consultations.
- Some attorneys will work on a contingency, so the debt collector pays your legal fees if you win.
- Local legal aid may offer free or low-cost services.
- Military service members have access to judge advocate general offices.
What to Do at the Hearing – Or Before
What you do at or before the hearing will depend on your situation. Your course of action will depend on whether you truly owe the debt. If you do owe the debt, it will further depend on whether you think you should have to pay it.
The common theme across all of these situations is that you want to bring documentation. Bring all of the relevant documents regarding your debt and its payment.
You Don't Owe the Debt
The process is easiest in situations when you do not owe the debt, or the amount you are being sued for is incorrect. In this case, you can simply ask the collector to prove you owe them.
Ask for the original debt contract and proof that you owe the specific amount.
Keep in mind that debts you don't think you owe or can't recognize may be from identity theft. As such, it is smart to check your credit report before attending the hearing.
You Owe the Debt, But Don't Think You Should Be Required to Pay
There are some situations when you may refuse to pay your debt. These are called "affirmative defenses."A classic example is if you bought a product or service that was never delivered or was defective.
Another example is if you canceled the contract while it was still within the appropriate time frame. Yet another example is if you signed the debt contract based on lies or misinformation. This is also the case if you signed a debt contract that was illegal or unenforceable.
In these situations, you definitely want to consult an attorney. They will guide you through your defense and the best course of action.
You Owe the Debt
In many cases, you accept that you owe the debt, but you simply don't have the money to pay it.
In this case, your best options will typically involve talking to the creditor before the hearing. This gives you a chance to work out some sort of agreement with them.
Additional reading: What Does the Bible Say About Debt? [FAITH & FINANCE]
There are two main agreements you may be able to make with the creditor:
- Settling for less than the total debt
- A payment plan
Get It in Writing
Any time you make a deal with a creditor, be sure to get it in writing. Furthermore, ensure that the agreement says:
- The debt is fully settled.
- The creditor will report the debt as paid (to all credit bureaus).
If You Don't Have the Funds for a Settlement or Payment Plan
The above suggestions only work if you have the funds available to make a payment plan or settle the debt. If this is not the case, consider credit counseling from a nonprofit.
You may also want to consider bankruptcy depending on the size of the debt and your financial situation.
Depending on your amount owed and where you live, you may also be "judgment proof." This means that you can't have your wages garnished. Your lawyer will let you know if this is the case.
If you don't pay a debt, the creditor can sue you for it. Always file a response and show up to the hearing. Failing to show can lead to a default judgment. It is always smart to consult a lawyer, and there are ways to afford one even if you don't think you can.
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Shawn Manaher is a former financial advisor, has founded 5 online businesses, and is a coach, speaker, podcast host, and author. He's been featured on Forbes, The Consults Corner on TAE Radio, The Writing Biz, What's Your Story, and more.