The definitive resource for California small claims

Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California

Represent yourself with confidence using the definitive guide to filing (or defending yourself in) a California small claims court case. Whether you're a plaintiff or a defendant, Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California can help you:

  • write your demand letter
  • file and serve papers
  • prepare evidence and witnesses for court, and
  • collect your judgment.

See below for a full product description.

  • Product Details
  • Winning a lawsuit doesn't happen by accident. You must prove your case. That’s where Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California can help. If you’re suing someone—or being sued—you’ll learn how to explain the facts, present credible evidence, and convince the judge to rule for you, not your opponent.

    But you get more than tips on preparing a powerful case. You’ll also learn how to:

    • determine the value of your case
    • write a demand letter
    • negotiate a settlement
    • file and serve court papers
    • gather evidence
    • subpoena witnesses
    • present your case in court
    • collect money when you win, and
    • file an appeal.

    And you won’t need to worry about being buried in forms. The 22nd edition includes sample forms and instructions for completing the paperwork, as well as the latest California laws and COVID-19 court procedures.

    Check out Nolo's list of California products. Not a California resident? Check out Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court


    “A step-by-step guide for making the legal system work for you.”-Orange County Register

    “Takes you by the hand through all the potential pitfalls of trying your own case.”-Los Angeles Times

    “Step-by-step advice on how to prepare your case, how to file it, and perhaps most importantly, how to collect if you win.”-Associated Press

    “Get information on how to prepare your case, win in court and collect your money from Nolo’s Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California.”-San Jose Mercury News

    Number of Pages
    Included Forms


    Official forms for California Small Claims Court are available in PDF format from the state of California at

    • Download and print the forms you need, then use this book and the filled-in samples (listed below) to guide you when fill them out.
  • About the Author
    • Cara O'Neill, Attorney

      Cara O'Neill is a legal editor at Nolo, focusing on bankruptcy and small claims. She also maintains a bankruptcy practice at the Law Office of Cara O’Neill and teaches criminal law and legal ethics as an adjunct professor. Cara has been quoted in bankruptcy, finance, small claims, and litigation articles by news outlets that include USA Today, CNBC, U.S. News & World Report, Nerd Wallet, and Yahoo Finance.

      Cara received her law degree from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, where she graduated a member of the Order of the Barristers—a highly-selective honor society that gives national recognition to top law school graduates demonstrating excellent skills in trial advocacy, oral advocacy, and brief writing.

      Working at Nolo. Cara started writing for Nolo as a freelancer in 2014 and became a full-time legal editor in 2016. She has authored a number of Nolo self-help legal books, including How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, The New Bankruptcy, Everybody's Guide to Small Claims (national version), and Everybody's Guide to Small Claims in California. She also co-authors and edits Solve Your Money Troubles and Credit Repair and has written hundreds of articles for,,, and

      Early legal career. Before joining Nolo, Cara spent 20 years working as a trial attorney litigating criminal and civil cases. She also served as an administrative law judge mediating disputes between auto manufacturers and dealerships and began teaching law as an adjunct professor in 2004. She added bankruptcy to her practice after the 2008 financial downturn.

      Origins of litigation and writing career. Thanks to her mother, Cara’s advocacy training began early and involuntarily. In junior high school, she took second place two years running in the local Optimist Club speaking competition. She also successfully competed on her high school speech and debate team for several years, eventually serving as president of the same. During law school, she competed on a nationally ranked ABA moot court team for two years (and was recruited for a third, but declined) and served as a law journal editor.

  • Table of Contents
  • Your California Small Claims Court Companion

    1. Basics of Small Claims Court in California

    • How Much Can You Sue For?
    • Why Use Small Claims Court?
    • Will Small Claims Court Work for You?
    • Finding Small Claims Court Forms and Rules
    • Understanding Legal Jargon
    • How to Use This Book

    2. Do You Have a Good Case?

    • Stating Your Claim
    • But Is My Case Any Good?
    • Breach of Contract Cases
    • Personal Injury and Property Damage Cases
    • Workplace Discrimination
    • Defective Product Cases
    • Breach of Warranty Cases
    • Professional Malpractice Cases
    • Nuisance Cases

    3. Can You Collect Your Money If You Win?

    4. How Much Should You Sue For?

    • Cutting Your Claim to Fit the Limit
    • Calculating the Amount of Your Claim
    • Equitable Relief (or, Money Can’t Always Solve the Problem)

    5. When Should You Sue?

    • Statute of Limitations
    • Calculating the Statute of Limitations
    • What If the Statute of Limitations Has Run?

    6. Settling Your Dispute

    • Negotiation
    • The Negotiation Process
    • Mediation
    • Formal Demand Letters
    • Get Your Settlement in Writing (a Release)
    • Last Minute Agreements

    7. Who Can Sue?

    • Married Couples
    • Sole Proprietorships
    • Business Partnerships
    • Corporations
    • Limited Liability Companies
    • Nonprofits and Unincorporated Associations
    • Motor Vehicle Claims
    • Government Agencies
    • Special Rules for Owners of Rental Property
    • Special Rules for Homeowners’ Associations
    • Suits by Prisoners
    • Suits by Minors
    • Special Rules for Military Personnel Transferred Out of State
    • Class Actions (Group Lawsuits)
    • Participation by Attorneys and Bill Collectors

    8. Suing Different Kinds of Defendants

    • One Person
    • Two or More People
    • Individually Owned Businesses
    • Partnerships
    • Corporations or Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
    • Motor Vehicle Accident Cases
    • Minors
    • Government Agencies
    • Contractors and Their Bonding Companies
    • A Deceased Person’s Estate

    9. Where Can You Sue?

    • Out-of-State Defendants
    • California Defendants
    • If You Are Sued in the Wrong Court

    10. Filing Fees, Court Papers,and Court Dates

    • How Much Does It Cost?
    • Filling Out Your Papers
    • The Defendant’s Forms
    • Changing a Court Date

    11. Serving Your Papers

    • Who Must Be Served
    • Serving an Individual
    • Serving an Out-of-State Property Owner
    • Serving Papers on a Business
    • Serving a Contractor or Anyone With a Surety Bond
    • How to Serve a Government Agency
    • Time Limits for Serving a Claim
    • Notifying the Court That Service Has Been Accomplished (“Proof of Service”)
    • Serving a Defendant’s Claim
    • Serving Subpoenas
    • Costs of Service

    12. The Defendant’s Options

    • If You Are Not Properly Served
    • If You Are Sued in the Wrong Court
    • If the Statute of Limitations Has Expired
    • Try to Settle
    • Try to Mediate
    • If You Have No Defense
    • Paying in Installments
    • If You, Not the Plaintiff, Were Wronged—File a Defendant’s Claim
    • Fight Back

    13. Getting Ready for Court

    • Interpreter Services
    • Free Advice From Small Claims Court Advisers
    • Getting Help From a Private Lawyer
    • Mediation
    • Practice, Practice, Practice
    • Getting to the Courthouse
    • The Courtroom
    • The Judge or Commissioner
    • Your Courtroom Strategy
    • Organize Your Testimony and Evidence

    14. Witnesses

    • What Makes a Good Witness
    • How to Subpoena Witnesses
    • Subpoenaing Police and Other Peace Officers
    • How to Subpoena Documents
    • Witness Testimony by Letter
    • Judges as Witnesses
    • Testimony by Telephone

    15. Your Day in Court

    • If the Defendant Is a No-Show
    • If the Plaintiff is a No-Show
    • Your Day in Court
    • Recovering Costs
    • A Sample Contested Case

    16. Motor Vehicle Repair Cases

    • Do You Have a Case?
    • Prepare for Court
    • Appearing in Court

    17. Motor Vehicle Purchase Cases

    • New Vehicles
    • Used Vehicles From Dealers
    • Used Vehicles From Private Parties

    18. Bad Debts: Initiating and Defending Cases

    • From the Plaintiff’s Point of View
    • From the Debtor’s Point of View

    19. Motor Vehicle Accident Cases

    • Who Can Sue Whom?
    • Was There a Witness?
    • Traffic Collision Reports
    • Determining Fault
    • Diagrams
    • Photos
    • Estimates
    • Your Demand Letter
    • Appearing in Court

    20. Landlord-Tenant Cases

    • Security Deposit Cases
    • Unpaid Rent and Former Tenants
    • Former Tenants’ Defenses to Unpaid Rent
    • Foreclosed-Upon Tenants
    • Drug Dealing and Other Crimes
    • The Obnoxious Landlord
    • The Landlord’s Right of Entry and the Tenant’s Right of Privacy
    • Discrimination
    • Evictions

    21. Miscellaneous Cases

    • Clothing (Alteration and Cleaning)
    • Dog-Related Cases
    • Damage to Real Estate
    • Police Brutality
    • Defamation
    • Online Transactions

    22. Disputes Between Small Businesses

    • Remember: You Didn’t Always Hate the Other Guy
    • Organizing Your Case
    • A Case Study—Proving a Case Exists
    • A Case Study—Personal Services Contract

    23. Judgment and Appeal

    • The Judgment
    • Paying the Judgment
    • Satisfaction of Judgment
    • Who Can Appeal
    • Filing Your Request to Correct or Cancel Judgment
    • Filing and Presenting Your Appeal

    24. Collecting Your Money

    • The Timing of Collecting Your Money
    • How to Collect
    • Installment Payments
    • Judgments Against Government Agencies
    • Finding the Debtor’s Assets
    • Levying on Wages, Bank Accounts, and Other Property
    • Judgments Stemming From Auto Accidents
    • Property Liens
    • Collection Costs

    25. Legal Research

    • Local Laws
    • State Laws
    • Case Law


    A. Major California Consumer Laws

    B. Legal Jargon for California Small Claims Court


  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 1:
    Basics of Small Claims Court in California

    The purpose of small claims court is to hear monetary disputes without long delays and formal rules of evidence. Lawyers are normally prohibited in small claims court in California (although you might want to seek a lawyer’s advice if your case is complicated and you want help preparing it). Instead, disputes are presented by the people involved—that would be the plaintiff (the person or party who starts the lawsuit) and the defendant (the person or party being sued).

    How Much Can You Sue For?

    In most cases, the maximum small claims amount an individual can sue for in California is $10,000. It drops down to $6,500 if you are suing a guarantor (someone who is responsible for the obligation of another), plus court costs for filing and serving papers. And the maximum that corporations and other entities (like government agencies) can request is lower than the individual limit, too. Corporations and government entities can sue for $5,000. And beginning August 1, 2021, new legislation allows landlords to file small claims actions for unpaid rent amounts exceeding $10,000. In legal jargon, this is called the jurisdictional amount.

    You can file as many cases as you’d like each year as long as the amount you ask for doesn’t exceed $2,500 per case. However, you’re only allowed to bring two lawsuits for more than $2,500 within any calendar year. The forms you fill out will require you to state whether you’ve used up your yearly quota.

    Why Use Small Claims Court?

    There are four great advantages of small claims court:

    • You get to prepare and present your case without having to pay a lawyer (whose fee would likely be more than your claim is worth).
    • Filing and preparing a small claims case is relatively easy. To start your case, you need only fill out a simple form called Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100). Also, each section includes easy-to-understand instructions.
    • Presenting your case is also relatively easy. When you get to court, you can talk to the judge in plain English. Even better, if you have helpful documents or witnesses, you can present them to the judge without complying with the complicated procedures, habits, and rules of evidence that must be followed in formal courts.
    • Small claims court doesn’t take long. Most disputes are heard in court within a month or two from the time the complaint is filed. The hearing itself seldom takes more than 15 minutes. The judge announces a decision either right there in the courtroom or mails it within a few days or weeks.

    Will Small Claims Court Work for You?

    Before you decide that small claims court sounds like just the place to bring your case, you will want to answer a basic question: Will the results you expect to achieve balance out the amount of effort you will have to expend? Even in small claims court, a successful case will probably take upwards of 20 hours to prepare and will likely cause a few sleepless nights.

    To determine whether your dispute is worth bringing to court, start by learning how small claims court works. You’ll want to know who can sue, where the court appearance would be held, and how much you could reasonably expect to win. You will also want to do the following:

    • Learn enough law to know what you’d have to prove to win.
    • Determine how to best prepare and present your case.
    • And most importantly, determine whether you’d be able to collect the money judgment if you win.

    Below are preliminary checklists that can help—we call them “Initial Stage Questions.”

    Finding Small Claims Court Forms and Rules

    The procedures and forms used in small claims court are used throughout the state, although some courts might have local forms. You’ll find blank copies of the forms at your local small claims court clerk’s office and (click “Forms & Rules,” then select “Browse More Forms”—you can search by either form name or number or choose “Small Claims” from the topic grid provided). We provide samples of key forms throughout this book.

    Always check the court’s website
    ( ) or with your local court clerk for the latest version of a form. Do not try to copy or use any of the forms shown here; they are primarily included for illustrative purposes.

    Both plaintiffs and defendants will gain insight by reading Information for the Small Claims Plaintiff (Form SC-100-INFO). Defendants will also want to study the ”Information for the Defendant“ section of Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100).

    You’ll also find a lot of useful small claims court information on the California Courts Online Self-Help Center website ( selfhelp-small claims.htm), including links to county-specific court information and to local small claims advisors (under ”Getting Help“). Each county has an obligation to provide free small claims legal assistance, and these advisors can be a great resource when it comes to preparing your case, defending a case, helping with collection questions if you win (or lose), and much more. Be sure you check with the proper judicial district for your particular claim (Chapter 9 explains where you can sue). If you can’t find your court’s assistance program information on the California Courts site, check your local small court website or call the court clerk directly.


    Initial Stage Questions for a Plaintiff
    1. Do you have a good case? Can you establish or prove all the required parts (or ”elements“) of your claim? (See Chapter 2 for a discussion about what you’ll need to prove to win contract, debt, property damage, and other common cases; Chapters 13 through 22 include general advice, as well as specific details for more cases, such as landlord-tenant disputes.)
    2. How much is your claim? If it is for more than the $10,000 small claims maximum and you’re not a landlord collecting unpaid rent, are you willing to waive the excess so that you can use small claims court? (See Chapter 4.)
    3. Have you made a reasonable effort to try to settle the case with the other party? (See Chapter 6.)
    4. Are you within the deadline or ”statute of limitations“ for filing your suit? (See Chapter 5.)
    5. Do you know how to identify the person or business you intend to sue on your court papers? In some cases, especially those involving businesses and automobiles, this can be tricky. (See Chapters 7 and 8.)
    6. Have you completed all the paperwork you’ll be required to file? (See Chapters 9 through 11.)
    7. If mediation is offered, do you understand how it works and how to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
    8. Can you present a convincing argument to the judge? (See Chapter 15.)
    9. If you win, is there a reasonable chance you can collect? (See Chapters 3 and 24.)


    Initial Stage Questions for a Defendant
    1. Do you have a defense to the plaintiff’s claim? (See Chapters 2 and 12.) Or can you sue the plaintiff for money owed to you? (See Chapters 10 and 12.)
    2. Is the amount of money demanded by the plaintiff reasonable or excessive? (See Chapter 4.)
    3. Has the plaintiff brought the suit within the ”statute of limitations“ time limit? (See Chapter 5.)
    4. Has the plaintiff followed the proper procedures in bringing suit and delivering the court papers to you? (See Chapters 11 and 12.)
    5. If mediation is offered, do you understand how it works and how to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
    6. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the plaintiff and settle the case? (See Chapters 6 and 12.)
    7. Do you have evidence that will prove your side of the story? (See Chapters 13 through 15.)
    8. Are you prepared to argue your case before the judge? (See Chapter 15.)


    Defendants may want to file their own lawsuit against plaintiffs. If you believe that you lost money due to the same events and the plaintiff is legally responsible for your loss, you’ll likely want to file an action (see Chapters 10 and 12). Defendants’ claims commonly develop out of a situation in which both parties are negligent (say in a car accident) and the question is who was more at fault. If your claim is for less than the small claims court maximum, you can file your defendant’s claim in small claims court. But if it is for more, you will want to file your case in superior court and have the small claims court case transferred there. (See Chapter 10.)

    Want to learn more about California’s court system? Check the California Courts website at to learn about the three court levels—Superior Courts (or trial courts), Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. Small claims court is a branch of the superior court. Small claims appeals do not go to the appellate courts, but rather are handled by a higher division of the superior court (discussed in Chapter 23).


    Understanding Legal Jargon

    Fortunately, small claims courts don’t use a great deal of technical language, but even so, you’ll probably need to become familiar with a few new concepts. We define legal terms when they come up and provide definitions in Appendix B. But if we don’t explain something, check out the Self-Help Glossary on the California Courts website ( glossary.htm).

    Finally, if you want to do your own legal research, the instructions are in Chapter 25.


    Key State Laws Covering Small Claims Court

    California Civil Code (Cal. Civ. Code) and California Code of Civil Procedure (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code) contain some of California’s most widely used substantive and procedural laws, and we cite relevant sections throughout this book. These are available online at the California Legislative Information website ( Go to “Quick Code Search,” select the name of the code from the drop-down menu, and enter the code number in the box below. Small claims rules are covered in Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 116.110–116.950. See Chapter 25 for detailed advice on doing legal research, and Appendix A for a list of citations for major California consumer laws.


    How to Use This Book

    This guide covers the procedures that both plaintiffs and defendants can use to successfully bring or defend a small claims case in California. Unlike other guides, it also contains step-by-step instructions for preparing particularly common small claims cases.

    Chapters 2 and 3 help you decide whether you should sue in the first place by having you ask yourself two crucial questions: Do you have a good case? Can you collect any money from the defendant if you win? If your answer to either of these questions is ”no,“ then you should read Chapter 6 to see whether you might be able to settle your dispute without going to court (which you should do even if you plan to try the case), or if you should consider dropping the idea of a lawsuit.

    Chapters 4–9 walk you through the procedural details. Small claims court is meant to be easy, but it still has rules you must follow. We address these issues in further detail.

    Chapters 10 and 11 cover the actual paperwork. How do you fill out your papers and deliver them to the defendant once you’ve decided to bring a small claims lawsuit?

    Chapter 12 is for the defendant. You’ve just been sued: What do you do?

    Chapters 13–15 get you ready for your day in court, including organizing your testimony and evidence, bringing in a witness (by subpoena, if necessary), getting an interpreter (if needed), and presenting your case to the judge.

    In Chapters 16–22, we look at the most common types of cases (such as disputes involving security deposits, car purchases or repairs, or an unpaid debt), and discuss strategies. Even if your situation doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories, consider reading the chapters. By picking up a few hints here and a little information there, you should be able to piece together a good plan of action. For example, many of the suggestions for handling motor vehicle repair disputes can be applied to problems fixing major appliances like televisions, washers, and expensive stereos. If you’re not sure about your strategy, however, you can try running it by a small claims advisor at your local court.

    In Chapters 23 and 24 you’ll find out how the judge issues a ruling, how to appeal, and how to collect your money if you’re successful. You’ll find that most of the forms used in a small claims matter aren’t needed until it’s time for a winning plaint


6 Reviews
5 Star
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Good read on Small Claims Court in California

By Huma396

I founded whatever I needed to know in this book.

Posted on 10/11/2021


By Billie B.

Very informative!

Posted on 7/13/2021


By Ronnie S.

Very good knowledge. Thanks

Posted on 7/13/2021


By Jackie B.

excellent resource

Posted on 7/13/2021

I am more confident now.

By Nolo C.

This book is preparing me well for my hearing. Fortunately, my hearing was a few months away, which gave me time to study the chapters and learn about small claims court proceedings and format. The examples are wonderfully helpful! After having a great experience with this book, I am going to add more Nolo books to my home library.

Posted on 7/13/2021


By Anonymous

Excellent. Readable, covers main questions a neophyte has.

Posted on 7/13/2021

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