The basics of navigating small claims court


At some point in most of our lives, we’ll have a disagreement over money. Most of the time, the amount of money at stake—say, in a disputed cell phone bill—is relatively small. But depending on the circumstances, that modest amount of money may matter quite a bit. And if you can’t work things out, sometimes the only alternative is to take the other party to court.

That’s where small claims court comes in. Filing a case in regular court is expensive, and the court process can be very slow. And if there isn’t an immense amount of money at stake, it’s likely not worth hiring a lawyer and paying the fees. Small claims court gives you a way to avoid that hassle and get a legally binding judgment to resolve the dispute.

Assessing your case

Small-claims courts are generally quicker, cheaper and simpler than regular court. But the rules differ from state to state, so the first thing you’ll need to do is figure out if your case meets the requirements of your state’s small-claims court. Here are some examples of the restrictions you’ll have to meet:

  1. Is my case the right type of case? In general, small-claims courts deal with disputes over money. (In some states, these courts will also handle a few other types of cases– such as evictions.) Other types of cases—such as divorce, guardianship and bankruptcy cases—likely aren’t eligible.
  2. How much money can I sue for? The majority of states have a limit between $5,000 and $10,000, but each state is different. In Tennessee, for example, you can sue for up to $25,000, whereas the limit in Kentucky is $2,500. Equally, many states have different limits depending the type of cases. In California, you can sue a person for up to $10,000 but a business for only up to $5,000.
  3. In which county do I file my case? If you and your opponent both live in the same county, then you can simply go to the small-claims court for your county. Even if the person lives elsewhere, you might still be able to use the court in your county if the location has a connection to your dispute (for example, you’re suing this person because they caused a car accident in your city). Otherwise, you may have to file your case in the county in which the person whom you’re suing lives.

Filing your case

Once you’ve determined that your case meets the court’s requirements, you’ll have to fill out some initial paperwork and pay the court filing fee. Again, the filing fee will vary by state (and by the size of your claim), but in general it will cost significantly less than filing a lawsuit in regular court. Most fees will fall in the $20–$200 range (and if you’re in a low income situation, the court might waive the fee).

Theoretically, you should be able to fill out the paperwork on your own (without the help of a lawyer). Indeed, a handful of states even prohibit lawyers from representing clients in small-claims court. But even in the states where you can have a lawyer if you’d like, most folks forego one, because the service is simply too expensive. The whole point of small-claims court is that it is a simpler, cheaper process that doesn’t require expensive legal expertise.

That said, the paperwork can still feel daunting. If you’d like some help without having to hire a lawyer, you can use online companies such as CourtLinked and Recourse that prepare the papers for you for a small fee. Once your case is filed, you’ll need to make sure that the defendant is “served”—meaning they receive copies of the papers in a way that the court requires (usually certified mail). Services such as CourtLinked will handle this part for you too.

Preparing for the hearing

The court will also assign a hearing date for your case, so the next step will be to prepare for it. At the hearing, you’ll have an opportunity to tell the judge what happened and show them any evidence you have to support your case—photos of property damage, receipts, or emails from the defendant, for example.

Take some time to consider your strongest arguments. Practice telling your story to friends or family and ask for their feedback. Remember that the judge will not give you unlimited time, so you want to make sure to start with your strongest points. The same goes for your evidence; don’t bury the judge with 50 photographs of the same thing. Instead, pick the pieces of evidence that best illustrate your story and make sure the judge focuses on that. If the judge asks you questions, try to answer as directly as possible and always be respectful—to both the judge and the defendant.

Collecting your judgment

If the judge decides the case in your favor, they will issue a judgment that specifies how much money the defendant owes you. Ideally the defendant will respect the judge’s decision and pay you what is owed. In some cases, however, the defendant may not have enough money to pay the entire amount owed, or worse, they may simply ignore the court judgment.

If you are in communication with the defendant, it might be worth having a frank conversation. If you trust the defendant, you could agree (in writing!) to an installment plan so that the defendant can pay you back over time. On the other hand, if you think the defendant is simply holding out on you, you will need to go to the sheriff. The sheriff can help to either levy the defendant’s bank account or garnish their wages. This process is called a writ of execution.

Considering your alternatives

Although small-claims court is faster and simpler than regular court, it still takes time and money. Given all the effort involved, it should be a worst-case scenario, only considered after you’ve exhausted efforts to work things out. Equally, you might ask the other person to agree to an alternative method of dispute resolution, such as mediation or arbitration. These processes are designed to be more flexible than court, and they may be cheaper and faster than small-claims court. At ArbiClaims, for example, you can resolve your dispute without ever having to leave your home—the arbitrator will conduct the hearing over webcam.