In a separate article, I argue that, often, there is no good reason to respond to collection letters and that you should consider ignoring them. The situation is usually completely the opposite when you receive a collection lawsuit. When a debt collector sues you it is normally important to respond very quickly. Otherwise, in the very near future, you might discover that the debt collector has emptied out your bank account. It could be that the first time you hear about it, is when you get a call from your landlord informing you that your rent check just bounced.
I’m not exaggerating. If you fail to respond to a lawsuit promptly and in the right way, the debt collector can literally take your money right out of your bank without telling you.
So, what do I mean when I say that you need to respond to a lawsuit promptly? What exactly is your deadline for responding to a summons in California?
You Have 30 Days to Respond to a Collection Lawsuit
At the beginning of a lawsuit, you will be served with the lawsuit papers called a “summons” and a “complaint”. That event kicks off a 30-day period to respond. To fully understand what this means, a little bit of unpacking is required, so that you can confidently mark the deadline on your calendar with a big red “x”.
a. Counting the Days from Personal Service
The preferred method of service is that somebody comes to your door and physically hands the lawsuit papers to you. If this happens it is referred to as “personal service,” and it is a very easy bright line from which to calculate thirty days. Basically, go to your wall calendar and put your finger on the date when the papers were handed to you, that is day-zero. Move your finger to the very next date, and say “one” do this until you get to day-thirty, and your finger will now be pointing to the last date on which you can safely file your response with the court.
b. Counting the Days from Substitute Service
When a plaintiff initiates a lawsuit, a process server then attempts to accomplish personal service on the defendant, as described above. However, sometimes the process server’s efforts at serving the defendant in person are unsuccessful. Under certain circumstances, the plaintiff can rely upon “substitute service” instead. If you have been roped into a lawsuit by means of substitute service, you need to know how to calculate your deadline for filing a response.
Substitute service becomes an issue when a process server attempts to accomplish personal service at a defendant’s residence (or place of work) several times but is ultimately unsuccessful. The process server makes a record of their efforts in order to prove their diligence and is then allowed to effect service of the lawsuit by handing the paperwork, not to the defendant, but to another responsible adult who resides in the same household (or if at work, with an appropriate person at the workplace).
Of course, in substitute service situations, the recipient might not convey the papers to the defendant. The law takes account of this fact, by requiring that in instances of substitute service, the process server must also mail a copy of the documents addressing the envelope to the defendant. When done properly, this method of handing the papers to a co-resident, with a follow-up mailing to the defendant, satisfies the requirements of service of process and is referred to as “substitute service.” There are other variations that also count as substitute service, but you get the idea.
If you have been subjected to substitute service, the date for your response is calculated from the date that the process server sent the follow-up mailing. For example, if the process server handed the documents to your spouse on April 5th, then mailed the documents to you on April 7th, then your time to respond is calculated from April 7th.
Importantly, with substitute service, you no longer merely count 30 days. You count 10 days from mailing and then you count 30 days from that. This is because, with the substitute service procedure, service is not considered completed until “the 10th day after the mailing.”
Put your finger on the calendar on the date of mailing and say “zero.” Then move your finger to the next square and say “one.” When you get to “ten” it is as if that is the day you were served. Now, move your finger to the next date and start with “one” again, until you get to thirty. To make this a little simpler, you get the same result if you start with your finger on the date of mailing as day-zero, and then simply count your way up to day-forty and put an “x” on the calendar for your deadline.
c. What if the Deadline Falls On a Weekend or Holiday?
If the deadline for filing something with the court falls on a date when the courts are closed — let’s say you end up making that big red “x” on your calendar on a Saturday or on Christmas — does that change anything? Yes, it does. It changes things in your favor. If your deadline is a court holiday or on a weekend, then your deadline is automatically extended until the next court day. Lucky you!
What do you Need to Actually DO by the Deadline?
This article is about how to calculate the deadline for responding when you are sued. Now you know the specific date of your deadline, you might be asking yourself what is this the deadline for? What do you actually have to do by that date?
The short answer is that you have to serve a copy of your written response to the other side, and file your written response with the court. How to do those things and what those terms specifically mean, are subjects for other articles.