Should I answer the Complaint?

Yes, if you want to defend the lawsuit.  If you do not file an Answer, the court will enter a Default Judgment against you.

Do I have to answer the Complaint?

No, but if you do not file an Answer, the court will enter a Default Judgment against you.  

What if I do not answer the Complaint?

The plaintiff will win automatically. The plaintiff will get a judgment for everything s/he asked for in the complaint.

I have offered to make small payments on my bill, or I have told the plaintiff I would make full payments as soon as possible. Can the plaintiff sue me anyway?

Yes.  They will file a lawsuit. If they win, the court will add the costs of that suit to the amount you owe. The creditor does not have to accept anything less than what you owe.

I cannot afford to pay the debt. Can they sue me anyway?

Yes. That is not a defense.

What is a Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets?

A declaration is a sworn statement. The Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets lets your creditors know you have income and/or assets the law says they may not take from you. If you think your income is protected or exempt from garnishment, you still need to respond, but you should also consult a lawyer.

*If you know for sure your income and/or assets are protected or exempt from garnishment, you should also use our new publication called When Should I File a Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets?

What are a Summons and Complaint?

The person starting a lawsuit must prepare a written statement telling the judge what the problem is and what s/he wants. That statement is the Complaint

The person starting the lawsuit is the plaintiff.

If the lawsuit is against you, you are the defendant. IF YOU ARE NAMED AS A DEFENDANT, YOU MUST RESPOND (even if you think the debt is not yours)!  Sometimes, the lawsuit will be against you and JOHN DOE or JANE DOE.  This happens if the plaintiff is trying to sue both you and your spouse because the plaintiff believes you are married but does not know your spouse's name.  If you are married and your spouse is named (either with his/her actual name or JOHN DOE or JANE DOE), you and your spouse must both respond to the Complaint. 

The plaintiff must have a copy of the Complaint delivered to you so you will know about the lawsuit.

In the Complaint, the plaintiff will make statements about you and about debts the plaintiff believes you owe.  JUST BECAUSE THE PLAINTIFF SAYS THINGS ABOUT YOU IN THE COMPLAINT DOES NOT MAKE THEM TRUE.  An Answer is your chance to tell the court which of the plaintiff's statements are true (and should be admitted), which statements are not true (and should be denied) and which of these statements you do not know or understand, or cannot remember whether the statement is true (should be denied for lack of information).

You will also get a Summons. It tells you:

If you do not tell the court in writing that you disagree with the statements in the Complaint, the judge will assume you agree with it and will often give the plaintiff what s/he asks for. The plaintiff wins by default if you have not answered. If the court enters a Default Judgment against you, you will not get notice of the Judgment if you have not at least filed a Notice of Appearance.

Once the plaintiff gets a judgment against you, s/he may be able to take money from your bank account or paycheck, or take some of your property to pay the judgment.

What is an Answer?

It is your written response to the statements in the Complaint. You are the defendant.

In your Answer,  

By filing an Answer in time, you keep your rights to argue about this matter in court and to get notice of future hearings.

You may feel embarrassed or guilty about being in debt.  You may just want it all to be over.   You should still file an Answer. It does not mean you are trying to avoid your debts. You may disagree with the amount the plaintiff asked for in the Complaint. You may want to preserve your right to get notice of future hearings. If you do not file an Answer, you may lose your chance to say how much you think you should pay. 

If you file an Answer and lose the court case, you may owe the plaintiff more court costs and attorney fees.

You will need one original and two copies of your Answer. You will file the original with the court.  One copy goes to the plaintiff.  You keep a copy. The section below, "What to do with the Answer," explains.

How do I fill out the Answer?

A. The Caption

Look at your Summons and Complaint. They have a heading that gives information about the case. This heading is the "caption." All court papers, including the Summons, the Complaint, and your Answer, are "pleadings." All pleadings use this kind of caption. 

The caption looks like this:


IN AND FOR THE COUNTY OF _______________________



 No.   ________










If the papers you received have no file number, the plaintiff may have decided to deliver (or serve) the papers to you before filing them with the court. The law allows this. You are still bound by the time limit listed in your Summons. But you may not need to file your Answer with the court yet. You must still deliver a copy to the plaintiff's lawyer (or the plaintiff if s/he has no lawyer). Read your Summons carefully. It should tell you what to do.

When you fill out your Answer, fill in the caption at the top of the page.  Copy the needed information from your Summons and Complaint. Copy the names of the plaintiff and defendant just as they are on the Summons and Complaint, even if they spelled your name wrong or called you or your spouse "John Doe."

B. Admissions/Denials/Lack Knowledge

After filling out the caption, use the middle of the page to give your answers to the statements in the Complaint. Usually, the Complaint's paragraphs are numbered. You may list the numbers and say one of three things about each paragraph of the complaint:

Read the Complaint carefully.  You must answer all the Complaint's statements by putting a number next to Admit, Deny, or Lacks Knowledge.

C. Defenses

You may have technical or legal defenses to the Complaint.  The Answer Form in this packet lists possible defenses you may have.  Some examples of possible defenses:

For more information on possible defenses you may have,   call CLEAR if you are low-income (1-888-201-1014, M – F 9:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m).

*You can have more than one Affirmative Defense. You should check all boxes on the Answer form that apply. You could lose an "Affirmative Defense" if you file an Answer without stating it.

D. The Signature and Your Address

On the last page, put the date you sign your name. Below that, sign your name with your legal signature (the one you use for checks). Just below your signature, print or type your name so it will be easily readable. Put your address below that. You have finished your Answer.

*REMEMBER:  If you and your spouse are both sued (your spouse's name is listed as a Defendant or the Complaint says JOHN DOE or JANE DOE), you both must sign your names and put the date you sign your names.


I have filled out the documents (Notice of Appearance and/or Answer). Now what?

If you deliver the forms in person, the Plaintiff's attorney must receive the documents by the deadline (20 days from the date the Summons and Complaint were handed to you or a member of your household).  Ask the attorney or office staff to date-stamp your copy.

If you mail the documents, you must put them in the mail at least 3 days before the deadline.  Ask the Post Office for tracking and delivery confirmation.

In the Certificate of Service, fill out the caption.  You need to put the date you are mailing or hand-delivering the documents to Plaintiff or Plaintiff's attorney.

In the next blank, list which documents you are mailing or hand-delivering.  (Example:  Notice of Appearance, Answer)

Next, you must list the Plaintiff's attorney's name and address.

At the bottom, put the date and place (the City and State) where you filled out the Certificate of Service.  Sign the Certificate and make one copy for your records. 

*You must file your Answer within the time limit listed in your Summons (usually twenty days). Once you have timely filed your Answer and served the plaintiff's lawyer, you should get notice of any hearings. IF YOU HAVE ALREADY MISSED YOUR TIME LIMIT, FILE AN ANSWER ANYWAY. A late Answer may be better than none at all. If you are too late, and the court has entered a judgment against you, talk to a lawyer right away.

Do you have blank forms I can fill out on a computer?

Yes. You can use our Answering a Lawsuit for Debt Collection - Self Help Forms online interview to create the necessary court forms


The following forms are available for you to download in MS Word format:




This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. This information is current as of May 2016.




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