Sued for Debt? Here’s What to Expect

If you’re facing a debt collection lawsuit, act quickly and consider all of your options.

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Written by Sean Pyles
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Edited by Kathy Hinson
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Sued for Debt? Here’s What to Expect

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Nerdy takeaways
  • You may face a debt collection lawsuit for old credit card or other consumer debt, or unpaid medical bills — and it’s crucial to respond to the summons.

  • Ignoring the lawsuit puts you at risk for wage garnishment and lowers your chances of disputing that you owe the debt.

  • The defense process for a debt collection lawsuit can be complicated. Consult with an attorney or a local legal aid office.

  • Options for handling the court hearing may include: setting up a payment plan with the creditor, settling the debt for less than you owe, or disputing the debt.

You may get hit with a debt collection lawsuit if you have old, unpaid medical, credit card or other consumer debt. If you don’t respond in time or attend the court hearing, the creditor is likely to win — and may get the right to take part of your wages or bank account.

What happens when you get sued for debt

Lawsuits are a common and efficient debt collection tactic. Debt collection lawsuits rose from 1 in 9 state civil cases in 1993 to 1 in 4 by 2013, according to a 2020 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. And the uptick in debt-related court cases has continued. Debt cases made up 42% of the civil cases in 2021 in nine states (Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin), according to a 2023 analysis, also from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A debt collection lawsuit begins when a creditor files a complaint with a state civil court listing you as a defendant, along with your co-signer if you have one. The complaint will say why the creditor is suing you and what it wants. Typically, that's the money you owe plus interest, and maybe attorney fees and court costs.

The creditor, collection agency or attorney representing it will then notify you of the lawsuit by “serving” you, which means delivering a copy of the complaint and a court summons. The summons has information about when and how you can file a formal response in court, and the date of your court hearing.

Debt collectors bet that most people won’t attend their hearing, leaving the judge to file a default judgment. With a default judgment the creditor may be able to:

  • Place a lien against your property.

  • Attempt to freeze part or all of the money in your bank account.

It's important to respond to the complaint and summons. Here's what to do.

Gather information

The creditor suing you may not be your original creditor. The debt may have been sold, perhaps several times over. It may be something you recognize, or it may be an old bill long forgotten — now a zombie debt — that a debt collector has revived.

Review your own records and any information you got in the mail, including the validation letter that the debt collectors must send. Determine:

  • Who the creditor is, whether the amount is accurate and whether you actually owe the debt. Errors can creep in as debt is sold and resold; names and amounts may be incorrect.

  • Whether the debt is past the statute of limitations. Once that passes, the debt is considered “time-barred.” That means you can’t legally be sued — but collectors may still try it, in violation of your consumer rights. Your obligation to pay time-barred debt remains, however, and the unpaid debt will continue to hurt your credit.

Don’t delay. You generally have 20 to 30 days from when you get served to file a response.

Respond to the lawsuit

Ignoring a debt collection lawsuit puts your wages, bank account or property at risk. Worse, you can also lose the ability to dispute that you owe the debt.

Organizing your defense and writing the response can be complicated, so you may want to consult an attorney. Often, attorneys will provide a free consultation, and if you win your case the debt collector likely will have to pay your legal fees. Many local legal aid offices offer low- or no-cost services. Military service members can get help from their local judge advocate general office.

An attorney can:

  • Point out defenses you weren’t aware of.

  • Help you write your formal response.

  • Represent you in court, if necessary.

Guidance from an attorney can help you write a more complete response, which might make the creditor more likely to pursue a deal with you.

You probably will have to pay a fee to file your response. Ask the court clerk for information about fee waivers if you can't afford the fee.

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Options for handling the hearing

Showing up for your hearing is crucial. This is when the judge will decide whether you have to pay, and it's your chance to make your defense or work out a deal with the creditor.

How you handle it depends on whether you owe the debt.

If you owe the debt

You have a few options. Seek out the creditor before the hearing begins and see if you can agree to:

  • Set up a payment plan where you make regular, affordable payments on the bill until you pay it off.

  • Settle the debt for less than you originally owed. If you can strike a deal, be sure to get a written agreement that says the creditor will consider the debt fully settled and will report it to the credit bureaus as paid.

Credit counseling from a nonprofit credit counseling agency can help you comb through your finances to cover a payment plan or settlement. If you still can’t afford to pay the amount you owe, you may want to pursue a debt relief option, such as bankruptcy, for a fresh start.

if you incurred the debt, but think you shouldn't have to pay

There are several instances in which you might have standing to refuse to pay a debt.

According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, an affirmative defense is a defense that provides supporting evidence for the defendant, and if the evidence proves credible, it will negate criminal or civil liability — even if the defendant committed the alleged offense.

Some examples of affirmative defenses for a debt case include:

  • What you bought was defective or never delivered.

  • The debt contract was unenforceable or illegal, or you signed it based on falsehoods.

  • You canceled the contract within the lawful time frame.

  • The statute of limitations has passed.

  • The debt was discharged in a bankruptcy.

If you think you might have such a defense, seek legal advice on the best way to proceed.

If you don’t owe the debt

When you're sued for a debt you don’t owe or for an amount you dispute, two words can give you a strong defense: “Prove it.” At the hearing, you can ask the creditor to provide the original debt contract and to prove why you owe the amount specified. If it can’t, the judge may dismiss the case.

Adequate documentation is key, but also seek the help of a qualified legal professional to help you navigate this process.

A lawsuit for a debt you don’t recognize may be the result of identity theft, so you may want to check your credit report for activity you don’t recognize.