In a separate article, I argue that, there is usually no good reason to respond to collection letters and that you should consider ignoring them. You might wonder whether the same rule of thumb applies with regard to a collection lawsuit. It doesn’t.
When a debt collector sues you it is normally important to respond very quickly. Check out this article to find out how to calculate your specific deadline. Doing nothing in response to a lawsuit is almost always the worst option.
In theory, I could have ended this article with the period at the end of the prior sentence, but it never ceases to amaze me how often I encounter people who have already received the exact opposite advice, so I’ll take the time to cover this topic a little bit more thoroughly.
I’ll cover a list of “stupid reasons” that never justifies failing to respond to a lawsuit, and then I’ll also cover a couple of potentially legitimate considerations, with the acknowledgment that sometimes — very rarely — it can make sense to not respond to a debt collection lawsuit.
a. Stupid Reasons to Not Respond to a Lawsuit
1) “I know I owe the money, so I deserve to have a judgment entered against me”;
2) “I know that I have no defense so I’m not going to bother”;
3) “I don’t owe the money and the judge will figure it out, so I don’t need to bother”;
4) “I’m broke and my income is exempt so it doesn’t matter”;
5) “I Googled this company and it is super shady so I’m not going to respond”;
6) “I ran away from the process server, and when she threw the papers at me she missed me by a mile”;
7) “La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, and I’m not going to open this envelope.”
Any of the above reasoning will get you run over by a legal bus. Rest assured that If you tell me you have fallen prey to one of the “stupid” reasons above, I will not judge you. Caveat: I might judge the person who told you not responding was a good idea.
b. Legitimate Considerations as to Whether to Respond to a Lawsuit
1) Whether you have been served with the lawsuit.
In point of fact, you could argue that you really haven’t even been sued until you have been served with the papers.
There is a certain sequence of events involved when a debt collector (or anybody else) wants to initiate a lawsuit. First, they prepare and file a document called a “complaint” with the court. The court stamps it as “FILED” and then gives a copy of the stamped document back to the plaintiff. Next, the plaintiff hires a process server to give the papers to the defendant (i.e., to “serve” the defendant). It is this second step — service of process — that starts the clock on the defendant’s deadline to respond.
Prior to being served, you are, in one way of thinking about it, not really a “defendant” because you are not part of the case yet. It might be more accurate to describe a not-yet-served defendant as an “intended defendant”.
It is possible to learn about the existence of a case before ever being served with it. You might receive correspondence in the mail that tips you off to the lawsuit. You might see from your “Ring Doorbell” camera that a process server has been coming around to your house. Maybe you learned about the case by Googling yourself (yes, unfortunately, lawsuits can sometimes find their way into online search results).
Whatever the means, let’s say you have learned of the existence of the lawsuit, but you have not yet been served.
If you have not been served, then maybe there is no harm in not responding, or in at least holding off on your response for now. You might make this decision because you can’t easily afford an attorney right now but you think you will have more money in a few weeks, so you buy time by not responding yet.
Be aware that even in this situation there is a bit of a risk, because it is always possible that the plaintiff will falsely claim to have served you. In my opinion, if you find out about a lawsuit against you it is usually safer to just get out in front of it and respond as if you had already been served. That way you can make sure the plaintiff doesn’t quietly get a default judgment against you by nefarious means.
2) Whether you are likely to be served with the lawsuit in the near future.
It matters whether your status as “not-yet-served” is likely to be a short-lived situation.
We’ve all had the experience of waking up 1-minute before the alarm, but instead of just getting up, we use the opportunity to re-set the alarm for 10 minutes later. Usually, we have not done ourselves any favors in that situation. The extra minutes were nothing but stressful and we ended up in a big hurry.
Waiting until you get served before taking action — when you know you are going to be served soon — is a lot like resetting the alarm. You don’t gain any peace, but you lose valuable time. You might find out that the process of researching how to respond to the lawsuit is more time-consuming than you had imagined. You might have trouble finding an appropriate attorney who can take your case. In short, you might end up wishing you had started the process as soon as you found out about the situation.
On the other hand, if an extra few weeks will make the difference between being able to afford an attorney, or being able to afford the filing fee at the court, then it might be nice to know that the clock doesn’t officially start to tick until you are served.
4) Whether you are unlikely to ever be served
Maybe you have reason to suspect that the plaintiff will ever successfully serve you. For example, perhaps by the time you learn about the lawsuit, it is clear that the case has somehow fallen between the cracks somewhere. Maybe it has already been on file with the court for three or four years and nobody has tried to serve you. Additionally, last year you got married, changed your name, and moved from California to Nevada and you don’t think the debt collector is likely to find you. California courts will eventually jettison old cases that have not been served (but be aware this can sometimes take years). Somebody in the situation I’ve just described might decide to quietly hang back and observe from behind the bushes to see if the case dies of old age.
I am in no way suggesting that anybody should actively avoid service of process. But depending on your circumstances, you might reasonably conclude that you will not be served before the court dismisses the case, even though you are not doing anything to duck service. If you have not yet been served, then whether you are likely to be served in the near future could be one factor when contemplating whether to respond.
We’ve identified some bad excuses for not responding to a lawsuit. We’ve also talked about the rare situations where you might legitimately consider delaying your response or maybe even not filing a response. In most circumstances, you should promptly file a response to a lawsuit.
Keep in mind, that this article cannot possibly cover every single situation, but if it helps you to ask yourself some of the right questions about your case, that’s great.