Small claims court exists to allow people to collect money and debts owed to them without spending an extraordinary amount of time or money to do so.
It’s designed for cases that are relatively straightforward, and the amount you can sue for is typically limited – the limits depend on your state and jurisdiction.
Yet when we think of court, we think lawyers. And we all know that lawyers are expensive.
So when you’re considering whether or not it’s worth it to file your claim in small claims court, a question to answer early on is: “Do I need a lawyer in small claims court?”
It’s easy to be intimidated when it comes to the court system.
A common misconception you’ll hear often is that you don’t need to have knowledge of the law or “jump through too many hoops” to file a claim – or defend yourself – in small claims court.
You have to be aware of a number of factors when filing a case, such as which court to go to, which forms to file, how to properly file those forms and serve the defendant, and how to present your case before a judge.
Luckily, Squabble was created by a team of lawyers to help you file your case in just a few minutes, without having to pay a lawyer for help.
Do You Need A Lawyer For Small Claims Court?
The good news for anyone considering filing a small claims case that wants to keep their expenses in check is that many states do not allow attorneys to appear in small claims court.
Even if your state does allow attorneys in small claims court, keep in mind that the system is designed to allow individuals to work through the process without a lawyer.
Lawyers may sometimes appear in a small claims court when the suit involves a corporation or government agency. You may want to consider consulting an attorney who understands legal terms in these types of cases.
If you determine that the defendant in your claim has hired an attorney to assist in their defense, it might be beneficial to have a lawyer yourself to ensure the defendant doesn’t win on a technicality or loophole. Your attorney may not be able to appear in court with you, but they can help you prepare.
However, these cases are exceptions.
Why you don’t need an attorney in small claims court:
- Most small claims cases are relatively straightforward. Your time before the judge will likely be less than 30 minutes and your chances of success are more tied to filing the appropriate paperwork correctly and having a reasonable claim.
- Most states don’t allow claims involving larger sums of money or challenging arguments to take place in small claims court. These types of cases are typically heard in civil court or limited civil court.
- Small claims cases are typically not worth the cost of hiring an attorney so it’s unlikely the defendant in your case will hire an attorney, even if they are allowed by the court to do so.
- You have Squabble on your side to help you file correctly and quickly, without incurring the cost of hiring a law firm. Find out how here.
Representing yourself in small claims court allows you to keep costs relatively low (hundreds of dollars vs. thousands if you involve an attorney). You also may find it difficult to locate an attorney willing to work on small claims cases.
At the end of the day, only you can decide if it makes sense to invest in the expense of hiring a lawyer to help you file your small claims case.
Am I Eligible To Sue In Small Claims Court?
To be able to sue in small claims court, you need to meet a few conditions.
- You must be a legal adult (aged 18 or above) or an emancipated minor.
Underage plaintiffs or those which the court deems incompetent to represent themselves can have a Guardian ad Litem (typically a parent or guardian) appointed by the judge.
- The amount you are seeking in damages must not exceed the limits set by your state and/or jurisdiction for small claims court. Most states cap small claims filings at or below $20,000.
Many states allow businesses to file suits in small claims court, provided the amount of damages being sought doesn’t exceed the state’s limits for small claims court. In many states, the amount that business entities can sue for is less than what an individual can sue for.
- The date of the incident related to your small claims case must fall within your jurisdiction’s statute of limitations. In other words, you only have a certain period of time after the incident in which you can file your case.
Statute of limitations can vary depending on where you are filing but most states have a limit of two years from the date of the offense or incident for routine cases such as property damage, personal injury, or failure to honor a contract.
Some states allow more time for cases involving a written contract, so make sure to check your state’s guidelines before you file.
🌟 Did you know? Some states allow up to four years to file if the case involves a verbal or written contract.
- You haven’t already filed cases in the calendar year that make you ineligible to file again in the current year.
Most states limit the amount that an individual can sue for and win in a calendar year. For example, in California claimants may not file more than two small claims court actions for amounts greater than $2,500 during a calendar year.
Make sure to check that the amount you are owed is at or below the maximum for your court and circumstances. Luckily, you can use Squabble and in a few moments they will tell you if your case qualifies – for free.
What Types Of Cases Do Small Claims Courts Handle?
If you’re going to tackle filing a small claims suit on your own without consulting a lawyer, you’re in luck. Small claims court is designed to handle smaller disputes that are relatively clear-cut nature making them easier to represent yourself in.
Here’s a list of some of the cases you can expect in small claims court:
Whether it’s your roommate, tenant, or sub-contractor not paying for the paintwork you did, people refusing to pay what you are owed is quite common. Fortunately, you can take these cases to small claims court to increase your chance of collecting on these debts.
Breach of warranty
If you’ve paid for work to be done that includes a warranty, but the work provider refuses to honor the terms of your agreement, you can take them to small claims court. A common example is if your vehicle’s brakes fail or battery dies within the warranty coverage period and the shop refuses to replace and/or repair your vehicle.
Common examples of landlord/tenant disputes heard in small claims court include late rent payments, property damage, loss of use due to property condition, and/or a landlord not returning a security deposit
Breach of contract
Similar to the previous examples, breach of contract disputes involve instances in which the terms of a contract (written or oral) are broken, resulting in monetary loss. Common examples include a contractor not completing promised work or changing the terms mid-way through a project without contractual basis to do so.
These cases involve instances in which a person or group of people:
- Damage property through negligence – or intentionally,
- Dispute boundaries or fence lines
- Disputes ownership (of an item, animal, etc).
If a licensed professional such as a dentist or accountant fails to use their skills properly and ends up harming you either physically or monetarily, you can take them to small claims court to compensate your losses.
Can Someone Else Appear for Me in Small Claims Court?
Many people want to know if they can have an attorney represent them in small claims court because they don’t want to have to represent themselves.
The idea of appearing in court, before a judge, can be intimidating.
In most cases, small claims courts require that you represent yourself (i.e., self-representation). There are, however, several exceptions that most states allow to this general rule:
- Minor or individual deemed incompetent to represent themselves: as we explained above, Underage plaintiffs or those which the court deems incompetent to represent themselves can have a Guardian ad Litem (typically a parent or guardian) appointed by the judge.
- Corporation or other legal entity: when one of the parties involved in the suit is not an individual, the company can usually be represented by an employee, officer, or director. A partnership can be represented by a partner or employee. The representative in these cases cannot be a lawyer unless the lawyer is an employee of a law firm that is party to the suit, with a few additional requirements to these specific situations.
- Sole proprietorships: In some cases, an employee of a sole proprietorship can represent the entity being sued. For example, if a chiropractor is suing a former client in small claims for an unpaid bill, the chiropractor’s bookkeeper may be able to represent them in court (provided he/she was not employed solely for the purpose of representing them in court). However, if a patient is suing the chiropractor for malpractice, the chiropractor would need to represent themselves.
- Property Managers: a property manager can represent a landlord in a case involving a rental property only in the event that the property manager was hired to manage the rental of the property and not purely for the purpose of representing the landlord in court.
- Out of State Parties: In certain cases, a non-resident real estate owner or driver involved in an auto accident may defend themselves by submitting a declaration or sending a representative. Contact the small claims court in your jurisdiction if you believe this may apply to your case.
- Spouse: In many cases, spouses may represent each other in small claims court if they have a joint – and aligned – interest in the claim or defense and the represented spouse gives their consent. Some courts require that this consent be documented and approved by the court in advance or your court date, so check with your local jurisdiction small claims court.
🌟 Did you know? Some judges will only allow employees that were directly involved with the account and have personal knowledge of the account history to appear in court on behalf of a company.
What will it Cost to File in Small Claims Court?
This question frames the basis of why “do I need a lawyer to file in small claims court?” is such an important question to answer before you embark on the process.
The good news: you probably do not need a lawyer to file your claim.
In fact, some states don’t allow attorneys to represent their clients in small claims court.
This keeps the costs associated with filing a small claims suit relatively low. But it’s important to know what you’re getting into in time and money cost to determine if it’s worth it to file your small claims case.
If you decide to consult an attorney to assist with filing your small claims case, it will drive the cost of pursuing your claim up by thousands of dollars.
Most small claims cases filed by individuals can be filed and carried out for less than $500, but it varies by state.
Here are some of the fees you need to be prepared to pay:
Court/Filing Fees. These fees vary depending on how much you want to collect from the defendant. It typically ranges from as little as $30 up to $150, depending on jurisdiction (where you’re filing your claim) and the amount you are seeking.
🌟 Did you know? Squabble will estimate your filing fees for free. Simply download the Squabble app and find out in minutes.
Service of Process Fee. All courts require that the defendant in a small court be formally notified that they are being sued. This is called “Service of Process” and must be done by a local “server” and informs the defendant that:
- You have sued them in small claims court (the “Complaint”)
- They are are required to appear in court on your court date (the “Summons”)
- If they don’t appear, they will lose the case automatically (“Default”)
Service through a local “server” typically ranges from $25 to $75 per person and/or entity that you sue.
What else affects filing fee costs?
Many states increase filing fees for “frequent filers.” If a person or entity files more than ten or twelve cases in a year in small claims court, they should expect their filing fees to increase.
Can I get court fees paid back to me if I win?
In many cases, yes, you can ask the defendant to reimburse you the costs of court fees and interest. But you have to factor them into the amount that you file for when filing your case with the court.
How do I determine how much I can ask the defendant to reimburse me for?
The court won’t award you more than you ask for.
If you’re not sure how to determine what court and filing fees you can include in your claim amount, Squabble will calculate the total amount you should file for. When you use Squabble you make sure that when you win, you’ll get the maximum amount possible without invalidating your case.
What Is The Small Claims Court Process Like?
Filing a lawsuit at a small claims court involves multiple steps. You’ll want to be extremely careful as even one mistake can lead to your case being rejected.
- Who should I sue? Figure out who the defendant is.
When filing a small claims case, you need to clearly state who the defendant is (person or business you are suing).
While this can seem straightforward, it can get complicated in certain circumstances.
For example, let’s say you get into a car accident due to a negligent driver who is using a friend’s car. If the driver is not insured, it’ll be difficult for you to collect your claim even if you win. In this situation, you can sue the car’s owner and if they have insurance, they will be legally obligated to pay for your damages.
Contract work with businesses can be just as complicated.
For example, if a handyman ends up installing bad windows, he or she can blame the contractor’s instructions in court and win the case. However, if you sue both the contractor and the window manufacturer, the judgment will favor you if either of them is determined to be at fault.
- Request payment before court.
By law, you are required to ask the defendant for payment before going to court and you must prove this when filing your small claims case.
This can be done through various means such as asking the person directly, through a call, or in writing.
A written request is generally the best option as it is easy to present as proof and can also motivate the defendant to resolve the dispute outside the legal system.
🌟 Did you know? Showing proof that you requested payment in advance can be as easy as texting the defendant your demand for payment and producing a screenshot of your dated texts in court.
- Find the right court to file your claim.
Each county across the country has a small claims court, but that doesn’t mean you can file wherever you want.
The general rule of where you are allowed to file is that the court must be in the same jurisdiction as where the offense took place. If you file in the wrong court, your case will be dismissed.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule such as the plaintiff being allowed to file cases in the county where the defendant lives or where an incident took place such as a car accident.
If you’re unsure which court to file your case in, Squabble can help!
The Squabble App uses easy questions to identify your case’s proper jurisdiction in just minutes – for free! Check it out here.
- Fill out court forms properly.
It wouldn’t be a court process without paperwork!
To start the filing process, you’ll need to fill out the proper forms. The process is typically the same regardless of which state you’re in, but the form names and/or numbers might differ depending on your location.
If there are more than two plaintiffs or defendants, most jurisdictions will require that you complete an additional form.
If you need more space to describe your claim or provide witness statements, you’ll have to complete an additional form.
Besides these forms, it’s also recommended that you ask a court clerk if there are any other local forms you have to fill out as per state or county regulations.
If this sounds overwhelming
- Hire an attorney that works with small claims cases to help you make sure everything is filled out properly before you submit your case.
- Use the Squabble app to get your claim filed in 15 minutes or less with a 100% correct filing guarantee.
- Figure out how much you have to pay to file.
You’ll have to include the proper court filing fee when you file your claim with the court, so you’ll need to determine how much you’ll need to pay before you file.
- File your claim
Once you’ve filled everything out, take your forms and your filing fee to the appropriate court for submission. Make sure to make a few copies before heading down to the courthouse.
A court clerk will review each document and may ask some additional questions. If everything is in order, you’ll be given the date, time, and location of your court hearing.
Remember that the court will keep the original and give you copies to keep and send to the defendant.
- Serve your claim
Once your case is filed, the next step is to notify the defendant, or “serve your claim”, which means providing the defendant with copies of the filed form informing the defendant what you’re seeking in damages, where and when the trial will be, and what they have to do.
You are not allowed to serve the claim yourself. You will have to hire a third-party to do so.
There are three ways to serve your claim:
- Court clerk
A court clerk can serve your case through certified mail (you still have to pay for it) but it’s important to note that this service is a hit or miss.
The defendant can refuse to sign the claim, sign in a way that is not clear, or have someone else sign for it. In all these instances your case will be thrown out before it even begins.
It’s also difficult to follow up with court clerks who are dealing with hundreds of cases at a time.
🌟 Did you know? Some sources estimate that having the Court Clerk serve the defendant is only successful 5% of the time.
- Personal service
Instead of a court clerk, you can get a friend – or anyone else you know – to serve the claim (as long as they are 18 or older).
This has a better success rate than certified mail because it is easier to get someone you know and trust to ensure the defendant receives and properly signs the claim.
- Process servers
A process server is a professional service that serves claims.
Every court has a list of registered and certified process servers you can hire to serve your case. However, this doesn’t mean they are reliable, so be sure to check their experience and success rate.
🌟 Did you know? Regardless of which method you choose to serve, you have a limited amount of time to complete this step, typically 15 to 30 days prior to your court date.
- Go to court
Before you get ready to attend your hearing, you’ll want to prepare.
Start by practicing how you’ll explain why you filed your case, have your arguments ready, and evidence in order. It’s also good to be proactive and think ahead of what the defendant might say or argue and how you will counter that.
Having proof that supports your version of events is also critical. It can make or break your case, so do not leave anything to chance.
If you have any of the following, submit them as evidence to strengthen your case:
- Estimate of damages
- Diagrams showing how an accident happened
- Police reports
Can I bring witnesses to small claims court?
You can bring witnesses to small claims court if they have first-hand knowledge of your case and will testify on your behalf, so it’s a good idea to put in the effort to make sure they show up.
However, if a witness can’t come to court, you can still get them to write and sign a declaration for submission. This can go far in helping the judge to better understand your case.
Ideally, witnesses should not be family or friends but there is no rule against it.
Be on time!
On the hearing date, be sure to arrive in court on time so that your case is not postponed to another date or thrown out.
Concisely make your argument.
The actual hearing is fairly short. Both sides are given an opportunity to present their evidence and version of events without many counterarguments.
Unless you’re extremely lucky, it’s likely you won’t hear the decision of your case in court.
Instead, you’ll get a “Notice of Judgment” through certified mail with the result. If you’ve won, the judgment will state the amount you’ve been awarded as well as how you can collect.
Can I appeal if I don’t win or disagree with the ruling?
Some states do not allow plaintiffs to appeal in small claims court. Many states only allow the defendant to appeal a decision found against them.
Example Of How A Small Claims Dispute Might Play Out In Court
Let’s say you signed up for a 16-week web design certificate course at a training institute and paid $5,000.
Everything went well for a few weeks until suddenly during week 6, the staff stopped sending lessons and didn’t respond to your inquiries.
After repeated attempts to contact the school without response, you decide it’s time to take them to small claims court.
To build a strong case, you’ll need to gather all instances of communications with the training institute (this includes emails, contracts, or any messages exchanged over SMS or app), evidence of when you signed up, and proof of the amount paid.
You will submit this proof along with the necessary forms required to file your case and the compensation you are seeking to the proper jurisdiction’s small claims court.
When in court, the judge will listen to your arguments and review the evidence.
The defendant may present a counterclaim where they try to prove why you were at fault for the lessons being discontinued. Moreover, they might even submit a claim of their own for time wasted or attorney fees.
It’s absolutely necessary to have strong evidence that proves why you are right within the reasoning of the law.
How To Get Your Money After Winning
You’ve won – congratulations!
By law, the court cannot collect money on your behalf, nor is there a way to guarantee that the defendant will pay voluntarily.
The easiest way to collect is to call or mail the defendant for payment.
If the defendant is willing to pay, there are a number of ways to collect. Some options available to you may include deductions from a defendant’s paychecks, levy access to their bank account (which lets you withdraw money legally), or you may be able to claim property valued at the same amount (such as their car).
However, if the defendant is not willing to pay, you’ll have to pursue legal options.
You’ll need to look into hiring an enforcement officer (usually a sheriff) who will request an execution order from the court. Once received, the officer will be able to take money or property from the defendant.
You will need to provide the enforcement officer with a list of assets owned by the defendant and their location and you will have to pay a fee for their service.
🌟 Did you know? You will typically have to pay an enforcement officer a fee of 5% of the settlement amount.
Enforcing a settlement against a non-compliant defendant can be challenging. For more details and suggestions for how to collect what you’re owed, check out our guide, “How to Collect What you’re Owed.”
Resources to Help with your Small Claims Case
If you’re still feeling nervous about filing a small claims case without an attorney, there are resources available that can help you get a deeper understanding of the process.
Small Claims Advisers are available in most counties throughout the United States. These advisers are usually available to provide free, individual, personal advisory services to small claims disputants.
Some are available by phone or email, and sometimes you can arrange to meet with one in person at their office or you may be able to attend a workshop.
Contact your local small claims clerk to inquire about small claims advisory services in your area.
Legal Service Programs for Low Income Persons are available in many states.
In California, contact LawHelpCA.org
In New York, look into the New York City Bar’a Free Legal Services and the City Bar Justice Center
In Texas, the State Bar of Texas Lawyer Referral & Information Service (LRIS) can offer you referrals to low-cost civil legal services agencies in your area.
Should You Hire an Attorney for Your Small Claims Case?
Only you can decide if the circumstances of your case (the amount you are claiming, the defendant, and the complexity) warrant the cost of hiring a lawyer to help you navigate the small claims court process.
Squabble was designed by a team of attorneys to give you the tools – and the confidence – you need to file your claim quickly and correctly without incurring costly legal fees.
With Squabble in your corner, you don’t need a team of attorneys.