Includes rules for all 50 states

Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court

Win your small claims case!

Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court provides the information, tips and strategies you need to sue someone successfully, or put up a winning defense. Find out how to:

  • write a demand letter
  • file and serve papers
  • prepare a winning presentation

See below for a full product description.

Available as part of the Nolo's Tenant's Law Bundle

  • Product Details
  • You don’t need a lawyer to succeed in small claims court if you know how to present your own case. Properly preparing for your day in court can make the difference between receiving a check and writing one.

    Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court provides the information, tips, and strategies you need to sue someone successfully or put up a winning defense in any state. Find out how to:

    • file and serve papers
    • mediate an out-of-court settlement
    • prepare evidence to support your case
    • decide how much to sue for
    • line up persuasive witnesses
    • present a winning case, and
    • collect money when you win.

    The 18th edition’s updated settlement section explains negotiation techniques you can use to settle your small claims case—or any other disagreement you might have—without going to court. You’ll also find the latest procedures for small claims courts in every state, sample letters, legal forms, a statute of limitations chart that will help you determine when you must file your case, and links to online resources.

    Are you a California resident? Check out Everbody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California


    "Useful advice... for anyone trying to get money back." -Money Magazine

    "You'll wish you'd read this book when you'd had the chance, it can give you that critical edge." -David Horowitz, Consumer Advocate

    "Walks you through the halls of small justice and explains how to file a claim, figure damages and argue your case effectively."-Kirplinger's Personal Finance Magazine

    Number of Pages
  • 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 Small Claims Court Companion

    1. Basics of Small Claims Courts

    • Why Use Small Claims Court?
    • Will Small Claims work for You?
    • 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
    • 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 Prisoners and Military Personnel
    • Suits by Minors
    • 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 and Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
    • Motor Vehicle Accident Cases
    • How to Sue Minors
    • How to Sue Government Agencies
    • A Deceased Person’s Estate

    9. Where Can You Sue?

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

    10. Filing Fees, Court Papers, and Court Dates

    • How Much Does It Cost?
    • Filing Your Lawsuit
    • The Defendant’s Forms
    • Jury Trials
    • Your Court Date

    11. Serving Your Papers

    • Who Must Be Served
    • Where Can Papers Be Served?
    • Serving an Individual
    • Serving a Business
    • How to Serve a Government Agency
    • Time Limits for Serving a Claim
    • Proof of Service—Letting the Court Know
    • 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 Compromise
    • Try to Mediate
    • If You Have No Defense
    • Paying in Installments
    • If You, Not the Plaintiff, Were Wronged—File a Defendant’s Claim
    • Transferring Your Case to a Higher Court
    • Fight Back

    13. Getting Ready for Court

    • Using a Private Lawyer
    • Consider Mediation—Again
    • Be Prepared
    • 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
    • How to Subpoena 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

    • Who Should Appear in Court?
    • From the Plaintiff’s Point of View
    • From the Debtor’s Point of View

    19. 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
    • Drug Dealing and Other Crimes
    • The Obnoxious Landlord
    • The Landlord’s Right of Entry and the Tenant’s Right of Privacy
    • Discrimination
    • Evictions for Nonpayment of Rent

    21. Miscellaneous Cases

    • Clothing (Alteration and Cleaning)
    • Dog-Related Cases
    • Damage to Real Estate (Land and Buildings)
    • 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 Contract Exists
    • A Case Study—Personal Services Contract

    23. Judgment and Appeal

    • The Judgment
    • Paying the Judgment
    • Satisfaction of Judgment
    • The 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 From Auto Accidents
    • Property Liens
    • Collection Costs
    • Renew Your Judgment

    25. Legal Research

    • Local Laws
    • State Laws
    • Case Law


    • A: Small Claims Court Rules for the 50 States (and the District of Columbia)
    • B: Legal Jargon for Small Claims Court


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

    Why Use Small Claims Court?

    The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving modest amounts of money, without long delays and formal rules of evidence. Disputes usually are presented directly by the people involved. Lawyers are prohibited in some states, including Michigan and California, but are allowed in most. However, the limited dollar amounts involved usually make it economically unwise to hire a lawyer.

    Check your state’s jurisdictional amount before you file. We provide the most up-to-date information available at the time this book was published. But these amounts change, so be sure to check the rules for your state before filing. An excellent resource for 50-state small claims court information is

    There are three great advantages of small claims court:

    • You get to prepare and present your own case without having to pay a lawyer more than your claim is worth.
    • Filing, preparing, and presenting a small claims case is relatively easy. The complicated legal forms and language found in other courts is kept to a minimum. To start your case, you need only fill out a few lines on a simple form (for example, “Defendant owes me the sum of $4,000 because the 2014 Neon he sold me on January 1, 2019, in supposedly ‘excellent condition,’ died less than a mile from the car lot”). When you get to court, you can talk to the judge in plain English without any legal jargon.
    • Small claims court doesn’t take long. Most disputes are heard in court within two or three months 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.

    Will Small Claims Work for You?

    Before you decide that small claims court sounds like the right place to bring your case, you will want to answer a basic question: Will the results you expect to achieve be worth the effort? Even in small claims court, a successful case will probably take at least 20 hours to prepare and, depending on your personality, could actually cause a few sleepless nights.

    When assessing whether your dispute is worth the effort, you will want to understand the details of how small claims court works, starting with who can sue, where, and for how much. You will also want to do the following:

    • Learn a little law to answer such important questions as whether you are likely to win and, if so, how much; what types of papers you must file and when; and who can sue (and be sued). Part of this involves knowing the different legal rules for different types of cases—for example, a personal injury claim versus a security deposit dispute.
    • Once you conclude you do have a winning case, understand how best to prepare and present it.
    • Finally, and most importantly, determine whether you will be able to collect the money if you win. This is an important detail that many people overlook. Assuming that you get a judgment for everything you request, it    won’t be worth much if you can’t get paid. Unfortunately, many plaintiffs who go through the entire small claims procedure and come out winners have no chance of collecting a dime. They’ve sued a “judgment-proof” person without collectible money or assets.

    This book covers of all of these issues. The first several chapters will help you decide whether or not you have a case worth pursuing; these are not the chapters where grand strategies are brilliantly unrolled to baffle and confound the opposition—that comes later. The initial chapters deal with such mundane tasks as locating the person you want to sue, suing in the right court, filling out the necessary forms, and properly delivering the forms to the person you’re suing.

    Below are preliminary checklists of things to consider at this initial stage—depending on whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant. This book goes into each area in more detail, and provides targeted advice for both plaintiffs and defendants in small claims cases.

    Initial Stage Questions for a Plaintiff
    1. Do you have a good case? That is, can you establish or prove all the key pieces of your claim? (See Chapters 2 and 14–22.)
    2. How much is your claim worth? If the value is more than the small claims maximum, do you wish to waive the excess and still use small claims court? (See Chapter 4.)
    3. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the other party and settle the case? (See Chapter 6.)
    4. Are you within the deadline (statute of limitations) by which you must file your suit? (See Chapter 5.)
    5. Whom do you sue and how do you identify this person or business on your court papers? In some types of cases, especially those involving businesses and automobiles, this can be a little trickier than you might have guessed. (See Chapter 8.)
    6. Which small claims court should you bring your suit in? (See Chapter 9.)
    7. If mediation is offered or encouraged by your small claims court, do you understand how it works and how best to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
    8. Can you make a convincing courtroom presentation? (See Chapter 15.)
    9. And, the most important question: Assuming you can win, is there a reasonable chance you can collect? (See Chapters 3 and 24.)


    Initial Stage Questions for a Defendant
    1. Do you have legal grounds for a countersuit against the plaintiff? Or put another way, does the plaintiff really owe you money instead of the other way around? (See Chapters 10 and 12.)
    2. Do you have a partial or complete defense against the plaintiff’s claim? Or put another way, has the plaintiff filed a bogus lawsuit? (See Chapters 2 and 12.)
    3. Is the plaintiff’s money demand reasonable or excessive? (See Chapter 4.)
    4. Has the plaintiff brought the suit within the proper time limit? (See Chapter 5.)
    5. Has the plaintiff followed reasonably correct procedures in bringing suit and delivering the court papers to you? (See Chapters 11 and 12.)
    6. If mediation is offered or encouraged by your small claims court, do you understand how it works and how to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
    7. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the plaintiff to arrive at a settlement? (See Chapters 6 and 12.)
    8. Assuming you’ll fight the case in court, you’ll typically need proof that your version of events is correct. Can you collect evidence and witnesses to accomplish this? (See Chapters 13–15.)
    9. Are you prepared to present your side of the case convincingly in court? (See Chapter 15.)


    Defendants may want to file their own lawsuit. In addition to their right to defend themselves, defendants also have the opportunity to file their own case against the plaintiff. (See Chapters 10 and 12.) If you are sued, you’ll want to do this if you believe that you lost money due to the same events the plaintiff is complaining about and the plaintiff is legally responsible for your loss. Defendants’ claims commonly develop out of a situation in which both parties are negligent (for example, 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 there. But if it is for more, you will want to check your state’s rules. Typically, you’ll learn that you should file your case in a different court (and have your opponent’s case transferred there), but your state may use a different system. (See Chapter 10.)

    How to Use This Book

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

    Chapters 2 and 3 help you answer the fundamental question of whether you should sue in the first place by asking 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, or 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 about how much money you can sue for, whom you can sue, what court you should bring your lawsuit in, and so forth.

    Chapters 10 and 11 are about 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. 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.

    In Chapters 16–22, we look at the most common types of cases and discuss strategies to handle each. Even if your fact situation doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories, you should read this material. 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 on how to handle motor vehicle repair disputes can also be applied to cases involving problems with fixing major appliances such as televisions, washers, and expensive sound systems.

    Appendix A contains a summary of important small claims court information and rules for every state. You can easily find the name of the court that handles small claims cases, the relevant state statutes, the link for the small claims court website, dollar limits for bringing a lawsuit, service of process rules, time limits for responding to claims, how to appeal a decision, and more. You will want to check your state’s small claims court website early in the process, whether you’re a plaintiff or a defendant, for valuable information about how small claims cases are handled in your state. Be sure to also check the local small claims court clerk’s office for local rules.

    Appendix B is a glossary of some key legal jargon related to small claims cases and court. Fortunately, there is not a lot of it, but there are a few terms that may be new to you. If you’re stumped by a term that isn’t defined in the book, check out the Nolo website, which includes a Free Dictionary of Law Terms and Legal Definitions.

    Because small claims procedures are established by state law, there are differences in the operating rules of small claims courts from state to state, including the maximum amount for which you can sue, who can sue, and the what, where, and when of filing papers. There are even differences in what small claims court (or its equivalent) is called in the different states, with justice, district, municipal, city, county, and magistrates court among the names commonly used.

    Even so, the basic approach necessary to prepare and present a case is remarkably similar everywhere. But details are important, and you should do three things to make sure you understand how small claims court works in your state:

    • Look up the summary of your state’s rules in Appendix A of this book.
    • Obtain your local small claims rules from your small claims court clerk’s office.
    • Check out your state’s small claims rules online. See Appendix A for information on how to find your state’s small claims court.

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