What should I do if a creditor or debt collector sues me?

Answer: If you're sued by a debt collector, you should respond to the lawsuit. You can respond personally or through an attorney, but you must do so by the date specified in the court papers.

When you respond or “answer” the lawsuit, the debt collector will have to prove to the court that the debt is valid and that you owe the debt.

Tip:

If you are sued, carefully read the lawsuit, and respond by any deadline. If you don’t respond, the court will likely issue a judgment against you as requested in the lawsuit.

Warning: While you must be properly “served” with a lawsuit, you won’t be able to stop the lawsuit by refusing to accept delivery or “service” of the lawsuit. By doing these things you’ll essentially be ignoring the lawsuit and you could be considered by the court as being properly served.

If you ignore a court action, it's likely that a judgment will be entered against you for the amount the creditor or debt collector claims you owe. Often the court also will award additional fees against you to cover collections costs, interest, and attorney fees.

Judgments give debt collectors much stronger tools to collect the debt from you. Depending on your situation and your state’s laws, the creditor may be able to:

  • Garnish your wages
  • Place a lien against your property
  • Move to freeze or garnish all or part of the funds in your bank account

Warning: You also may lose the ability to dispute that you owe the debt if a court issues a judgment against you.

A judgment is a court order. Only the court can change it. It's very difficult to get a judgment changed or set aside once the case is over. You have a much better chance to fight a collection in court if you defend the case than if you wait until a judgment is entered against you. You may also be able to work out a compromise or settlement by negotiating with the debt collector before a court makes a judgment.

Tip:

Consult an attorney in your state to learn more about your rights if you are sued on a debt.

Some attorneys may also offer free services, or charge a reduced fee, such as through your local bar association. You may wish to find an attorney who has experience in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and debt collection issues. There may also be legal aid offices or legal clinics in your area who will offer their services for free if you meet their criteria. Servicemembers should consult their local JAG office.

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