Written by attorney Suzanne R. Begnoche

How Will I Know When I've Been Sued?

Potential clients often arrive at my office after creditors have sued them and gotten judgments. They often tell me that they never really understood that they had been sued to begin with. So what is the difference between lawsuit paperwork and a normal collection letter?

In North Carolina, a lawsuit starts when the creditor files two documents with the clerk of court: a "summons" and a "complaint." The creditor then sends these documents to you, usually either by certified mail, or by having a sheriff's deputy or a private process server deliver them to you.

To see what a typical summons form looks like, click here to see the summons form put out by North Carolina's Administrative Office of the Courts. Not every summons will look exactly like the form I've linked to. Some creditors use their own summons forms, but they must still include all of the same basic information.

The summons is usually printed on yellow paper, and will have a court file number and county name listed at the top, along with a stamp that says "FILED" and shows the date and time of the filing. The creditor's name and address will be included as the "plaintiff" and your name and address included as "defendant." The summons should also list the name and address of the creditor's attorney.

The summons will include the words "A Civil Action Has Been Commenced Against You!" This means that the creditor has filed a lawsuit against you. You've been sued.

The summons also contains some instructions for what you should do next: file a written response to the lawsuit at the courthouse, and send a written answer to the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney within thirty days of receiving the lawsuit paperwork. If you do not answer the lawsuit, the plaintiff may ask the court for a "default" judgment against you.

Attached to the summons you should see the lawsuit complaint. It will also contain the creditor's name, your name, the county and file number, and the title "Complaint." A lawsuit complaint is usually a set of numbered paragraphs in which the creditor gives its version of the facts and asks the court to do something, as shown below:

If you have received lawsuit paperwork, don't wait too long to get help! Relying on advice from friends, family, or internet message boards about how to handle the lawsuit is often a mistake. If you are not sure how to respond, it is best to contact an attorney. An attorney can also help you make a request to the court for additional time (beyond the first thirty days) to respond to the lawsuit.

Additional resources provided by the author

(The attorney writing this guide is licensed only in the state of North Carolina. This guide does NOT constitute legal advice and does NOT create an attorney/ client relationship! Rather, the guide is in the form of legal education and is intended to provide general information about the matter in question. There may be facts and law relevant to your case which would make this guide unsuitable. Therefore, the reader should not base any decision on the guide, but should confer with an attorney in person about the specifics of his or her case.)

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