Small claims courts primarily resolve small monetary disputes, and in a few states, evictions and property claims. The detailed rules for small claims court vary from state to state. However, the procedure is much the same no matter where you are. This overview will give you an idea of what to expect when you file a suit in small claims court.

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  1. Try to settle the dispute outside of court. Many states will ask you to sign an Affidavit stating that you have made a genuine effort to collect the claim.
  2. Contact the county clerk in the small claims court district closest to the residence or business of the person you are suing. If the defendant has no contact with your state, you may be able to sue in the location in your state where the contract was signed, but you generally have to sue in the state where the person you're suing lives or does business. Out-of-state small claims lawsuits tend to be expensive and unwieldy.
  3. Fill out a complaint form, otherwise known as a "Statement of Claim" at the clerk's office, and pay the filing fee. The form typically asks for the nature of your claim, the dollar amount you're suing for, and any documents you plan to submit as evidence. The filing fees vary by state, but typically range from $15-$100.
  4. Send your "Statement of Claim" document to the defendant. You may use the sheriff or a private process server to serve the document at your expense. The court clerk will give you more information about the service process.
  5. Generally, the person you're suing has twenty days to file an answer your claim (thirty days if he or she resides out-of-state). A few things can happen during this period:
    • The person you're suing may send you the money you are owed. If this is the case, notify the court that you wish to have your case dismissed.
    • The person you're suing may not respond. If this is the case, you may file a notice of default requesting that the court grant you default judgment, which means you automatically win and can collect money owed.
    • The person you are suing may file a counter claim. You have twenty days to file a response. If you do not, your case will be dismissed.
  6. Many states require that both you and the person you're suing appear before the judge for a pretrial hearing to determine what happens next. The defendant may settle the claim at this time. If the defendant does not, the judge may order mediation, or the judge may agree to let the matter proceed to small claims court trial.
  7. If the case goes to small claims court trial, both you and the defendant will have a chance to tell your sides of the story. You both must take an oath to tell the truth.
    • You will present your side first. The judge has heard hundreds of cases like yours, and has no reason to believe that your story is credible just because you say so. You need to back up your case with strong evidence. Explain in clear and concise language what happened to give rise to your claim. Then state how much money you are requesting. Present any documents and call any witnesses to support your case. If the judge has questions, he or she will ask.
    • The person you are suing will present his or her side second. The judge will ask questions. You are also permitted to ask questions. If you believe that the defendant is not telling the truth, ask the questions in such a way that you expose the facts.
  8. Once both sides of the story have been heard, the judge issues a ruling. If the judge needs more time to consider the case, he or she will tell you when to expect a ruling.
  9. If you win the case, it is your responsibility to collect the money owed. The court cannot do this for you. 

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