Unexpected knocks at the door can sometimes be a welcome surprise, but what happens when this unanticipated visit from a stranger comes as a result of unpaid debt? This unfamiliar experience, in which you are notified via legal documents that you are being sued by a creditor or collection agency, is otherwise known as “being served.”

The term “served” refers to the act of being delivered or receiving a court summons by a third party. In cases of outstanding debt, creditors, collection agencies, or lawyers will serve you with a written complaint and a court summons. These documents include details regarding the case, such as when an answer is due to the accusing party. Because most debt cases are considered civil lawsuits, a court date is not typically set. Instead, a due date will be assigned.

Most often, the suing party will hire a professional process server or a local sheriff to deliver the legal documents. If for any reason the server cannot find you, they may leave the papers with an adult at your home or place of business. Later, they will mail you a copy of the documents, which you are required to sign and return, stating your acknowledgement of the service. If you fail to sign, the creditor can later prove this in court, you may be subject to a fine.

Submit an answer

If you’ve been sued for debt, the first thing you must do is submit a formal response—legally referred to as an “answer”—within 20 days. An answer consists of a legal document replying to the claims made against you. When crafting an answer, you must be careful to respond to every allegation listed per paragraph within the complaint, and avoid admitting to any information that you are unsure of.

Although filing an answer is the most commonly used method when responding to a lawsuit, there are alternative options:

Negotiate

One option to filing an answer to your lawsuit is to negotiate a resolution with the plaintiff.  While certainly a possibility, this alternative is one of the riskier methods of handling a lawsuit due to the tight 20-day deadline set by law. Keep in mind that regardless of your efforts to settle the dispute with your plaintiff, an answer is still required within 20 days and negotiations can take quite some time.

Counter-claim

You can also file a counterclaim against the plaintiff. Suing the plaintiff would fall under one of two counterclaims: permissive or compulsory. A permissive counterclaim “arises from an event unrelated to the suit of plaintiff and can be made even at the later stage of the suit or in a different suit,” accordingly to USLegal.com. A compulsory counterclaim “generally must be a part of the initial answer to the plaintiff’s action and cannot be made later in the suit or in a separate lawsuit,” says the site.

File a Motion to Dismiss

Whether it’s lack of jurisdiction or failure to state a claim, there are a few reasons why filing a motion to dismiss may be the right option for you. Did the plaintiff properly serve the summons and complaint? If not, you can motion a file to dismiss, claiming insufficiency of service of process. Once filed, a judge can either grant your motion, deeming the case dismissed, and over, or deny your motion, leaving you with 10 days left to file an answer.

What Happens if You Ignore the Claims?

Ignoring the claims, or doing nothing, is always an option. However, this means that the plaintiff will likely ask for a default judgment, so be prepared.

What happens next depends entirely on the nature of your case. While the early stages of a lawsuit may be manageable, things can become much more complicated down the road. Due to the complex nature of this process, you should consult with an attorney to help you manage your case. From there, you can evaluate whether or not the claims against you hold any merit. For example, most contracts contain a provision for settling disputes through arbitration, making the lawsuit invalid. In addition, debt collectors are required to provide specific documentation proving ownership over your debt. If a creditor fails to provide written verification of your debt, they cannot collect money from you.

Sources:

http://www.civillawselfhelpcenter.org/self-help/lawsuits-for-money/pleading-stage-filing-a-complaint-or-responding-to-a-complaint/243-responding-to-a-complaint-if-you-ve-been-sued#step-1-calculate-your-deadline-to-respond

http://abatement.uslegal.com/abatement-due-to-another-action-pending/compulsory-and-permissive-counterclaims/#sthash.NgXNcAQ5.dpuf