Taking Your Case to Small Claims Court

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It's called small claims court, but it can be a big relief if somebody owes you and you haven't gotten satisfaction any other way.

The dollar amount that you can sue for in small claims court varies depending on where you live. Some states limit small claims to $1,000. I've seen others that allow claims for $5,000. If your dispute is for slightly more than the limit, it may still be worth it to file a small claims suit. You won't be able to sue for the full amount, but you'll avoid the expense of a regular lawsuit.

The small claims filing fee varies from state to state. It can be as cheap as $20 or as much as $200.

Generally, you have two to four years after the initial dispute to file a small claims suit. Check the statute of limitations in your state.

Usually you can file in the county where the business is located or the county where you live. Not all jurisdictions offer small claims court, but often if they don't, they relax the rules in regular court for people trying to settle small disputes.

To file your suit, fill out a form stating your name, the defendant's name and the nature of the dispute.

You have to give the court the correct name and address of the defendant in order for your suit to go forward. If it's a company, you need the name of the owner. If it's a corporation, you need the name of one of the corporate officers.

If the corporation uses a fictitious business name, you need the real corporate name. For example, you may know the business as "Mack's Towing," but the actual corporation may be called "Mack Jones Inc."

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Usually your secretary of state can give you information about a business and its owners.

You will have to pay to have your lawsuit served upon the defendant. Some states allow you to do this by certified mail. Others require you to pay the sheriff's department to hand deliver your lawsuit.

To prepare for your day in court, you should write up a chronology of your dispute with the defendant. Also, gather together every piece of written evidence you have -- contracts, receipts, leases, etc. Make multiple copies so you can share your documentation with the court.

If applicable, consider taking photographs that help prove your point too.

Some states allow you to call witnesses to small claims court.

Finally, prepare your presentation by writing out bullet points that you want to cover and noting which documents or witnesses help illuminate each bullet point.

The great thing about small claims court is that you don't have to pay a lawyer more money than your dispute involved in the first place. In fact, often lawyers aren't allowed in small claims court. If you want to fine-tune your case, you can hire a lawyer for an hour or two to go over the case with you outside of court.

Once you get to court, a judge or arbitrator will hear your case. You won't have to know the rules of court procedure and you'll be able to present your side in plain English.

If the defendant doesn't show up in court, often you win automatically.

Keep in mind that if you lose your case, you do not have the right to sue again in a regular court. However, if the defendant loses, he has the right to appeal to another court.

If you win, there's still no guarantee that the defendant will pay the judgment. In some states, the court has no power to make the defendant hand over the money. Other states are more helpful.

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