If a debt collector files a lawsuit against you to collect a debt, it’s important to respond — either yourself or through an attorney. And remember, you have rights when it comes to dealing with debt collectors. Here are answers to some common questions you might have about the process.
Getting sued by a debt collector can be stressful, and you might not know where to start. The most important thing is to respond. That might mean writing a timely response and showing up to court on the date stated in the court papers, even if you think you don’t owe the debt.
By responding to the lawsuit, either yourself or through an attorney, you’re requiring the debt collector to make their case and protecting your rights. If you show up to court, the debt collector will have to
- prove that you owe the debt
- prove that the amount of the debt is correct
- prove that they have the legal right to sue you to collect on the debt
Responding or showing up in court might help you settle the debt because some collectors would rather settle than go through a long (and expensive) lawsuit.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore the lawsuit. Even if you don’t think you owe that debt. Responding to a debt collector’s lawsuit will likely put you in a better position, cost you less in fees, and give you more control over how you repay the debt.
So, if you get sued by a debt collector:
- Answer the lawsuit, which you may have to do in writing or by showing up to court — or both. The legal papers you got will tell you what to do and give you deadlines.
- Look over your records about the debt and any information you may have gotten from the collector, including the validation information that debt collectors must send you.
- Review the lawsuit claims carefully. It’s the collector’s responsibility to prove their case. They must show that you’re the person who owes the debt, the debt amount is accurate (including any interest or fees), and you owe the debt to them and not to someone else. If the debt is old, make sure the time for the collector to sue hasn’t already expired (this is also called “time-barred debt”).
Ignoring legal notices and papers won’t make the lawsuit go away. And despite what you may have seen in TV shows, you can’t stop things by refusing to accept delivery or “service” of the lawsuit. In fact, the case can go ahead without you. That means the court can rule without hearing your side and the debt collector could win by default because you didn’t show up.
If the court rules against you and orders you to pay the debt, the debt collector may be able to garnish — or take money from — your wages or bank account, or put a lien on your property, like your home. The debt collector can also ask the court to award them additional money for collection costs, interest, and even attorney’s fees. A judgment will likely show up on your credit report and might make it harder to get credit in the future. That can affect whether you get a job, insurance, a phone, or a home.
Going to court can feel overwhelming to do alone. But there are options to get legal help, including
- Getting free or reduced-fee legal help, if you have a low income. To find a legal aid organization near you, use the Legal Service Corporation’s search tool. Or search for a pro bono (free legal help) program using the American Bar Association’s pro bono resource directory.
- Looking up free online answers to debt collection questions from an attorney in your state, which you may be able to get at LawHelp.org.
- Hiring an attorney, if you can afford it. Find a lawyer in your state using the American Bar Association’s Directory. Be sure to ask if they have experience with consumer law, debt collection defense, or the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Debt collectors must follow the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act when contacting you about a debt. Report any problems you have with a debt collector to
- the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov
- your state attorney general’s office
- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Many states have their own debt collection laws that are different from federal law. Your attorney general’s office can help you figure out your rights under your state’s law.
If a debt collector breaks the law, you have one year from that date to sue that collector in a state or federal court. You can sue for damages that happened because the collector broke the law — expenses like lost wages or medical bills, or compensation for the effect the debt collector’s actions had on your job or your health.
But even if a court finds a debt collector violated the law in trying to collect a legitimate debt, you may still owe the debt.