How do you sue someone?

Tips & how-to

Every hour, an estimated 4,500 lawsuits get filed in the United States. That works out to 40 million lawsuits a year. People sue for many reasons, including: 

  • Enforcement of a contract (a builder who didn’t complete a job, for example)
  • Financial compensation for financial, physical, or emotional harm (such as slip-and-fall injuries or malpractice)
  • Confirmation and protection of property ownership 
  • Dissolution of a personal or professional partnership

If you find yourself needing to file a lawsuit, but not knowing how to sue someone, don’t worry. Here are the basics to help you get started.

What steps are involved in a lawsuit?

Step 1: Identify the person or organization you want to sue

Name each party you hold responsible for the issue. In the legal profession, this is known as “naming the defendant.” If you don’t take this step, the person or organization you sue might pass off blame to someone else and the lawsuit could get dismissed.

Step 2: Send a demand letter

Before you commit to legal action, which is costly and time-consuming, send the other party a letter detailing what you want. This is known as a demand letter.

A demand letter is your opportunity to settle the matter out of court. It also serves as evidence to support your case if you do need to take legal action. Your demand letter should include:

    • A review of the facts. Even if you’re sure the other party understands the situation, a detailed description will help if the case goes to court.
    • A request for what you want and a deadline. One or two weeks is usually a reasonable time frame. If you’re asking for money, state the amount.


  • A reminder you will take legal action if the other party doesn’t comply.


Keep a copy of the letter and send the original by certified mail. Request a return receipt so you know it was delivered. 

Step 3: Complete the required paperwork with the correct court

You need to file your lawsuit with the correct court. Federal courts have jurisdiction over only certain larger claims. State courts have jurisdiction in most lawsuits, but it’s not easy to know which state has jurisdiction in your case. The defendant could have your lawsuit dismissed if you file in the wrong court, so it’s smart to check with an attorney first.

You’ll file in small claims court if your disputed amount is under the state’s dollar-value limit. Limits range from $2,500 in Kentucky and Rhode Island to $25,000 in Tennessee. To file in small claims court, all you need to do is fill out a form called “Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court.”

If your disputed amount is above your state’s limit, you’ll need to fill out the following papers:

  • Complaint: states what you’re asking for and provides details on the claim.
  • Summons: notifies the defendant of the lawsuit, sets a deadline for an answer, and states when and where a court will hear the suit.
  • Service of process: documents how and where you served the complaint and summons to the defendant.

Step 4: Serve the other party

Serving someone means giving them the court papers described above. In a civil lawsuit, you only need a competent adult who’s not involved in the case to deliver the papers. You can ask someone you know to serve the defendant or hire a professional process server. Keep in mind that a professional server will charge a fee.

Step 5: Attend court

On the date listed in the summons, you’ll need to arrive at the specified court location with any evidence, papers, and witnesses you need to argue your case. If you live in a state that allows attorneys in small claims court, your attorney can handle case preparation.

If your case goes to small claims court, a magistrate will decide in your favor or the defendant’s. If not, a judge or jury will make the decision. 

How much does it cost to sue someone?

To sue someone, you’ll need to pay filing fees, court costs, and attorney fees. The exact dollar values for these fees vary based on where you’re filing and what your attorney charges. Average attorney fees range from $150 to $300 per hour, but those numbers might be higher or lower depending on your needs and location. 

Lawsuit costs vary so much that it’s hard to determine an average estimate. One ballpark number you might hear is $10,000, but that can go up quickly if you have a lot of evidence and witnesses involved.

Consider these expenses when you decide how much to ask for in your lawsuit. The costs of a lawsuit are also an argument for hiring an attorney because if you don’t win, you pay fully out of pocket.