If You are Being Sued and Can't Afford a Lawyer: Filing an Answer

What is an ‘Answer’?

If you disagree with a plaintiff’s statement in their complaint that you owe money, you must file what is known as an ‘Answer.’  An Answer is your written response to a plaintiff’s statement that you owe him money.  It must be filed in Court.

What is a ‘Counterclaim’? 

If you feel the plaintiff owes you money, you must file a ‘Counterclaim.”  A Counterclaim is your written statement that the plaintiff owes you money.  If you want to file both an Answer and a Counterclaim, you can write them out on the same paper.  This will be your ‘Answer and Counterclaim.’

It is very important that you file your Answer and any Counterclaim you may have on time.  If you do not file on time, the plaintiff may be able to get a ‘Default Judgment’ against you winning the case.  The plaintiff could garnish your wages or put a lien on your  property.

When to File

You have twenty-eight (28) days from the date you received the court papers to file your Answer and/or Counterclaim.  If the last day of the 28-day period falls on a Saturday, Sunday or national holiday, you have until the next business day to file.  If you don’t remember when you received your papers, call the Clerk of Courts (the phone number is located on the Summons).  Tell them your case number and that you need to know the date your complaint was served.  Your case number is at the top, right-hand side of the papers you received.

Where to File

After you have completed your Answer and/or Counterclaim, you must file it at the Clerk of Courts office within the 28 days.  It will not cost you any money to file an Answer.  You can call the clerk to find out the cost to file a counterclaim.

You should make at least two copies of your Answer and/or Counterclaim.  Take the Answer and/or Counterclaim and copies to the Clerk of Courts.  Ask them to ‘time-stamp’ them for you.  The clerk will keep the original for the court and give you back the copies.  One copy is for your records.  You must send the other copy to the attorney representing the plaintiff, or, if the person does not have an attorney, to the person who signed the complaint.  (Note:  be sure that you state in the Answer and/or Counterclaim that you are sending a copy to either the attorney or the plaintiff.)

If you cannot file your Answer and Counterclaim within the 28 days, then you are entitled to request a “Leave to Plead.”  The “Leave to Plead” must be filed by the last day you would have had to file your Answer and Counterclaim.  It must be filed within 28 days from the day you received the court papers.  The “Leave to Plead” is a written statement by you to the court that you will file your Answer and/or Counterclaim within 30 additional days.  If you file a “Leave to Plead,” your Answer and/or Counterclaim must be filed by the end of the 30-day extension you requested in your “Leave to Plead.”

Remember, if you do not file your answer and/or Counterclaim on time, the plaintiff or his attorney will probably try to get a “default judgment” against you.  A “default judgment” is a decision by the court in favor of the plaintiff because you did not file your answer on time.  You may not receive a copy of the default judgment if you have not filed a written response with the court.  The court will normally give the plaintiff a judgment for the amount of money in the plaintiff’s complaint.  Therefore, it is very important that you file your Answer and/or Counterclaim with the Clerk of Courts on time.

What to File with the Court:  the Answer and/or Counterclaim

Your Answer and/or Counterclaim is your response to the plaintiff’s Complaint.  In the Answer, you are telling the court why you do not owe either any money or the entire amount of money the plaintiff is asking for in his complaint.  If there are reasons why the plaintiff owes you money, then you should also file a Counterclaim.  Be sure to put the case name and case number on your Answer and/or Counterclaim.

Your Answer will generally contain the following information:

1) A heading to identify your case naming the plaintiff and defendant including the case number as well as the name of the court where the case is filed.

2) A statement that you admit or deny that you owe either any money to the plaintiff or that you owe the entire amount of money the plaintiff is requesting.

3) Any reason you may have that you do not owe either all or part of the money.

Your Counterclaim is your claim against the plaintiff.  Your claims may include any reason that you feel the plaintiff owes you money or services.

For each of the claims in your Counterclaim, you must state the amount of money your claim is worth.  Be reasonable.

Preparing for the Trail

After you have filed your Answer and/or Counterclaim, the court should send you a notice of the time and the place of your trial.  If you move after filing your answer/counterclaim, you should give the court your new address in writing.  You must appear on time for the trial or the court may dismiss your case against the plaintiff and give the plaintiff everything he is asking for in his case against you.

If you can, try to bring to the trial witnesses who have ‘personal knowledge’ of the facts about the claims you are making against the plaintiff.  Personal knowledge means that the witness has actually seen the things or actually heard the conversations that they are testifying about at the trial.  You might have to subpoena your witnesses.  A “subpoena” is a court order that the person has to come to court.  Be careful not to subpoena someone who will actually try to hurt your case.  If you need them to bring documents they have in their possession, you must describe in your subpoena what you want them to bring with them.  Subpoenas can be obtained at the office of the Clerk of Courts.

You will often need physical documents such as:

  • Copies of receipts for money you have spent
  • Copies of any agreements you have made in writing
  • Copies of bills you have received
  • Copies of letters you sent or received about the dispute

You should take the original documents with you to court, along with copies.  The court will keep a copy for the court file.

Getting an Attorney to Represent You.

It is always  better to be represented by an attorney.  This handout does provide some basic information that you should find useful if you are unable to get an attorney and you have no other choice but to represent yourself.

This article is meant to give you general information and not to give you specific legal advice.Prepared by Community Legal Aid Services, Inc. Updated May 2012. CE-SH-F275-CLAS