NOTE: This Brief is an overview of how to use Small Claims Court to collect a debt outstanding.

General

Most counties have a Small Claims Court where you can collect on debts owed, do not need an attorney, and the process is relatively quick, inexpensive, and easy. Using the four steps [Prepare, File, Court, Collections] detailed below you can do this for less than $100 and less than 20 hours of your time.

Each county will have its own set of forms and procedures that are outlined on their county web site. See either the Reference Section below or simply do an Internet search for “SMALL CLAIMS COURT,” YOUR COUNTY NAME, YOUR STATE;” and then look for the detailed instructions that apply to you.

Why Small Claims Court?

All States want a way for a normal citizen to use a special court, outside the regular court system to collect what is owed them. This is without the expense of an attorney [on either side]. The Small Claims Court was established for that purpose..

Should I do this? 

Knowing the points below will assist you in deciding whether to file or not

  1. Your claim can only be for monetary damages and for no more than $3,000.
  2. You will file all the paperwork yourself and you must appear in person for the hearing
  3. It usually works best if the defendant [who owes you money] is in the same county.
  4. The majority of defendants usually pay up “on the court steps” when they get a legal notice to appear in Small Claims Court.

Keys to Success:

  1. Visit both the Small Claims Court filing desk [to understand what you will need to put on the claim form] and an actual court session [yes you can visit], before filing, to get experience with how the court’s docket is posted and then how the cases are heard and decided.
  2. The person [you or the defendant] that brings the best evidence to the court hearing will probably win, so be prepared to show the judge both how you were damaged and how you calculated the amount of your claim.
  3. Bring a friend with you on both the visit, the filing and to court. It will calm your nerves.
  4. Even if you win in Court, the court will not automatically make the damage collection for you, you will need to do this as a separate step from the court case [detailed below].

Probable Costs for Entire Process:

The costs involved are:

  1. Less than $60 to make the initial Small Claims Court Filing [single piece of paper].
  2. Less than $40 for parking around your courthouse
  3. Less than 25 hours of your time to: visit the court, assemble your evidence, file your claim, show up in court, and file collections paperwork 

Four Simple Steps to Using Small Claims Court:

[Read and follow your specific court’s instructions as the steps below are very general]

1. Step One: PREPARATION

You will need to do the following:

  1. Find a friend to be with you
  2. Get and read all the local court's instructions on how to file a claim
  3. Visit the filing location and the actual court [to see how it is done]
  4. Assemble all the evidence and cost information
  5. You may add to your actual damages the additional costs you may have incurred in filing this case [travel, time, etc]. The judge will decide if this is acceptable.
  6. Get the accurate and legal name of the defendant

2. Step Two: FILING

You will then file the claim by:

  1. Going to the filing office or completing the one page claim form online [be prepared to pay for the filing in cash or credit card ]
  2. Making sure you get notice that the claim has been served on the defendant [ i.e. you had the correct address and name]
  3. Your court date will probably be about 30 days after the filing date.

3. Step Three: COURT APPEARANCE

Now you go to court and:

  1. This is a one shot deal, everything happens in this one court hearing, so show up!
  2. You are your own attorney so preparation of evidence, filing, and speaking in court is your responsibility
  3. Be at the court room 30 minutes before court opens to review the daily court docket listed outside and then calm your nerves. Once the judge starts it may be 1 – 3 hours before your case is heard. Remember this is easy and your will friend will tell you that also.
  4. When the judge calls you, he/she has not a clue about your case so you will have to both describe [evidence] how you were injured and how you came about your dollar claim [evidence]
  5. The defendant will have a chance to speak, so anticipate what their defense might be and have evidence ready to show how that is false.
  6. Many times the judge will ask you and the defendant to go outside for a few moments to see if you can’t resolve the issue because if not then the judge will decide
  7. If the judge decides you are right, then the court will issue an order for the defendant to pay
  8. If the defendant was not in court, make sure that the court or you notify the defendant of the obligation. The court does not automatically do that. See the court’s detailed instructions for doing this
  9. NOTE THIS DOES NOT MEAN THE DEFENDANT WILL AUTOMATICALLY PAY YOU, SO SEE STEP FOUR.

4. Step Four: COLLECTION PROCESS

  1. Many times the defendant will simply not pay you, so the court provides a next step for you to use the court to now collect what is owed you.
  2. There are several different methods for doing this so you will need to get [ from the court web site ] and read the options available to you.

References:

1. Web site for Small Claims Court

Other US Small Claims Courts:

http://www.ncsc.org/Topics/Civil/Small-Claims-Courts/Resource-Guide.aspx 

2. Sample detailed guide to small claims court for Hamilton County, Ohio 

3. Helpful guide from ProSeniors 

4. Sample claim form/guides for Kentucky:

Sample 1 

Sample 2 

If you would like to request a Cincinnati SCORE counselor please click here, for a Dayton counselor click here

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Key Topics

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