If you do not show up to a small claims hearing, the creditor usually wins automatically “by default”. The judge will verify that the plaintiff served the defendant with court papers, that neither party requested a postponement, and that there is some basis (evidence) supporting the plaintiff’s case before issuing a default judgment.

Note that the default judgment will remain for 20 years. Your credit report will show you owe this money for the next 7 years. For the next 20 years, the plaintiff can get an execution to take any car you get if it is worth more than $7,500.

If you are over 60, the car is expected to be worth over $15,000 before the plaintiff can get the execution. If you get any other unprotected assets, the plaintiff can get an execution to take these. If you also get a job, the plaintiff can ask the court to let them garnish part of your wages.

Sometimes, even the court enters a default judgment that is not fair to the defendant. The defendant’s remedy will be to file a motion asking the judge to set aside or vacate the default. If the defendant wins, the case will be set for a new trial.

Note that the motion’s success will more or less depend on whether the defendant knew about the trial date and other pertinent factors. Courts are not very sympathetic to setting aside or vacating a default judgment unless you can show that you were not served with the lawsuit and didn’t know about the hearing.

In some states, this can happen if someone signs your name for a certified letter and then doesn’t give it to you. In all states, it can occur when a dishonest process server doesn’t serve you, but tells the court otherwise.

But if you received the court paperwork before the court entered a default judgment against you, you’ll face an uphill struggle to get it set aside. A few judges will accept excuses (“I forgot,” “I was sick,” “I got called out of town”).

Nonetheless, most will assume that you could have called or had a friend call no matter what the emergency and will not vacate the judgment without good cause. Examples of good cause might include a death in the family; your unplanned hospitalization; or other circumstances beyond your control, such as flooding or a blizzard.

Also note that if a judgment creditor already received a writ of execution (the paperwork needed to collect a money judgment, although it could have a different name in your court) to collect the small claims judgment, most states will recall (stay) the writ while the motion to vacate is pending.

If the creditor served the writ of execution in an effort to collect — for example, your employer received the writ and is garnishing your wages — the defendant must file a motion to suspend the writ of execution (often called a Motion to Stay or Quash the Writ of Execution), too.

Tips for Success in Small Claims Court

First you have to understand that small claims court is designed to help small business owners and individual citizens take a simple, small dollar amount case to court without having to pay costly legal fees and high court costs. Even though the small claims court process may be easy, getting the money if you win the judgment is not always a sure thing. Below are essential tips to help you during this process;

  1. Understand the Process in Your State

You have to first ensure you know the dollar limit for small claims actions in your state. In most states, there is a concise limit on the amount of debt owed that can be taken to small claims court. Note that any amount owed in excess of this limit must be taken to other courts or taken to arbitration. Also keep track of accounts receivable by running an accounts receivable aging report regularly, so you don’t allow a customer to exceed this limit.

  1. Know the Defendant

Ensure to get all the relevant information about the defendant, like addresses, phone numbers, business type, and trade names. If you have previous addresses or phone numbers, or other contact information, include that too. Note that the court must have some way to find the person to serve them with a summons. If the court can’t find the defendant, the person can’t be served by an agent of the court, nor can you get any money from them.

  1. Have Excellent Records

Note that the key to winning in small claims court is normally good records. If you can prove that (a) the customer ordered the work or agreed to buy the product, and (b) that you delivered on the work or the product, you have a pretty strong case.

  1. Be Ready for the Counter – Argument

In most small claims court cases, the customer will try to claim that the work was not done properly or as agreed to. This is especially where the great records will show that you did the work or delivered the product as specified. Note that you do not have to prove that the work was perfect, just that it was done as agreed.

  1. Ensure you have Photos

Just like we always say, a single picture is worth a thousand words, especially in a lawsuit. They can help you prove that the work was completed.

  1. Also Bring Witnesses

It is pertinent the witnesses you bring remain credible and that they stick to the subject at hand. Your sister telling the judge what a wonderful person you are won’t help your case, but an employee talking about how he installs flooring will certainly help. If a witness is reluctant to appear, get the court to issue a subpoena.

  1. Show up for the Trial

Just like it was stated above, coming to the trial is the best way to ensure your success in getting your claim paid. You would be surprised how many defendants don’t appear for small claims court. In these cases, the judge almost always awards you (the plaintiff) the judgment. However, if you set a case in motion and you don’t show up, you just wasted your money. And don’t just show up – be dressed for success and know how to act in court. It goes a long way with judges.

  1. Follow up After You Get a Judgment

At this point, be ready to follow up to be sure you receive the amounts owed. Getting a judgment from small claims court doesn’t mean you will be paid. You may have to get a lien on the debtor’s property or a garnishment of wages. Research more about options for collecting your small claims judgment.

Conclusion

You have to realize that your decision to not show up will almost surely result in a default judgment against you. The judgment will probably be for the dollar amount demanded by the plaintiff, plus the amount of his filing fee and any reasonable costs of serving the papers on you. Getting served with legal papers isn’t fun. But you don’t need to panic if you find yourself at the wrong end of a lawsuit in small claims court. Explore the options above and seek advice from a legal expert.

Ajaero Tony Martins