File Answer Magistrate Court Debt Collection Lawsuit in Georgia
Filing an answer to a debt collection lawsuit is one very simple way to avoid a financial catastrophe of a judgment that follow you for years to come.
When you are served with a debt collection lawsuit, it is NOT the time to stick your head in the sand because you aren’t sure what to do or think you may owe some of all of the money or you simply believe pretending it is not happening means it will just go away. Not only must you deal with it in the present but in Georgia you’ve only got 30 days from the date you are served with the lawsuit to file your answer.
Did you know that the vast majority of defendants do not file an answer to debt collection lawsuits? The result is usually a default judgment against the defendant and everything that the lawsuit complaint claimed to be true is deemed true. You’ve just made a debt collector’s job very easy. With a judgment, they can then move forward to garnish wages and bank accounts to collect its judgment. And what’s worse, a judgment is good for SEVEN years AND is RENEWABLE so a judgment may potentially be looming over your head for many years to come!
After the lawsuit is filed with the court by the plaintiff, the “complaint” is served on the defendant. The complaint is basically the paper that says what the plaintiff is suing for and why. The lawsuit can be served by a Sheriff who comes to your front door and hands you the papers or a private process server. The moment that the lawsuit is served upon the defendant, the clock starts ticking.
For the most part, the lawsuit can be served upon a defendant by leaving it with someone of “suitable age” at the residence last known and not necessarily the defendant. I am even aware of one county that just mails the defendant the complaint and tells them to come pick it up at the court house.
What is an “Answer”?
An Answer is basically just as it sounds – you respond to the complaint against you. You admit or deny the allegations in the complaint and assert legal defenses and counterclaims if you have them. Before I go into the Answer itself, let me tell you what can happen if you DON’T file an answer.
After the 30 days from the date the defendant is served passes and no answer is filed, a “default judgment” can be entered against the defendant. This basically means because the defendant didn’t answer, they didn’t dispute the plaintiff’s allegations against them. So, in short, plaintiff wins whatever it is they’re asking for and defendant loses. Default judgments are easy money to debt collectors. They commonly ask for pre-judgment interest rates, post judgment interest rates, attorneys fees, and court costs most of which they aren’t even legally entitled to collect because they don’t possess the proper underlying documentation to support those claims. But nevertheless, the defendant didn’t answer and if the paperwork looks like it might be in order, default judgment is granted and the debt collector can move to garnish wages (up to 25% of disposable earnings) and seize funds in bank accounts.
Then the plaintiff debt collector may move to garnish wages and freeze bank accounts to obtain funds to satisfy their judgment. This can all occur so quickly and easily for the debt collector. Even better for them, if you don’t file an answer, they don’t have to prove anything. They don’t have to prove you are the right person to be sued, they don’t have to prove you didn’t pay them, hell, they don’t even have to prove that they actually have legal standing to sue you. I’m not saying that debt collectors would ever falsify documents or anything like that (or debt collection lawyers for that matter, don’t we all trust debt collectors….? and lawyers….?), but as long as the documents appear to be in order, its pretty easy to get a default judgment. Just file a few papers and done! You might wonder, why do they get away with that? Why not? If the vast majority of people don’t bother to dispute what’s being filed, then why shouldn’t they get away with it?
So, what does one have to lose by filing an answer? Absolutely nothing…..UNLESS you say something stupid.
Remember that whole miranda warning criminals get when they are being questioned by detectives…”you have the right to remain silent….anything you say can be held against you in a court of law…” Think about that for a second. The things you do and say can certainly have an impact on criminal proceedings, but they can also have an impact on civil proceedings as well. Especially when you are filing pleadings or motions with the court, think about what you’re saying. Are you saying too much? Probably. And it’s very likely that a debt collection lawyer will scrutinize what the defendant does file and find ways to hang them with it.
An answer is pretty simple. “Admit or Deny”.
For those few people that do file an answer, I think many of them believe they have to make their whole case out on that one piece of paper or they’ll lose. There are a few things that I would consider noble, but stupid, in an answer to a lawsuit. Literally paragraphs of how they lost their job, couldn’t catch up on payments, blah blah blah. Turns out, those are NOT answers. In fact, they may even be used against a defendant as “admissions” that they owe whatever it is the plaintiff says they owe. Do you think a debt collection lawyer cares if you lost your job or fell behind? Nope, turns out they hear that everyday. They only care if you’re gonna make their job hard or not.
So, what have we learned so far? An answer is NOT a paragraph of my dog ate my homework excuses.
Besides, don’t you know that this is going to be public record? Hypothetically speaking, your employer could hear a rumor that you’ve been sued by a debt collector, go to the courthouse ask to see the file and ta-da, there’s your life on public display. So, think hard about what you’re filing with the court.
To learn about Magistrate court pleadings and procedures, an excellent resource is the Counsel of Magistrate Court Judges Website.
There you can find fill in the blank forms including Answer / Counterclaim forms. I know it says “attach additional sheets if necessary” but don’t go overboard. Even the instructions with the Answer form from the Counsel of Magistrate Court Judges states, “An answer is the defendant’s written response to the plaintiff’s statement of claim. It should list all the defenses of the defendant and either admit or deny the claims of the plaintiff.” Hummmm, lets read that again. “It should list all the defenses of the defendant and either admit or deny the claims of the plaintiff.” It does not say write paragraphs about your hard financial times or granny’s health problems. It says 1.) list all the defenses 2.) either admit or deny the claims of the plaintiff.
The majority of debt collection lawsuit complaints are fairly simple. There are usually numbered paragraphs that make it easy to read and respond to in an answer. They usually look something like this:
1. The defendant lives at 123 Sesame St. Metro Atlanta, GA 01234
2. The defendant entered into an agreement or contract of some kind with some specific something here.
3. The defendant defaulted on that agreement.
4. The defendant owes $a billion dollars and has refused to pay.
Now that you’ve completed your Answer, you’ve got to file it.
If you want to do yourself a really good favor, you’ll bring THREE copies of your answer to the court house with you. One for the nice lady at the courthouse. One for your records (get her to stamp it for you too) and one to be served on the Plaintiff with a Certificate of Service.
I have seen in some cases that the Magistrate court doesn’t require you to serve your answer on the plaintiff or sometimes require you to mail it to them but don’t care about the certificate of service. Every court is different and you may just need to ask the clerk what they prefer you do. Let’s pretend you want to make absolutely certain you do everything right. You could go to the Counsel of Magistrate Court Judge site again and you’ll see that they have a “Certificate of Service” form there. Go ahead and fill that out too and make three copies of that while you’re at it. Three copies might not be absolutely necessary but it sure does simplify things.
So, let’s go back to that whole “bring three copies” thing. Ok, so you’ve printed out your answer three times. Then you’ve filled out three Certificate of Service forms too. You take those 6 pieces of paper and you get the nice lady to stamp them all. She is going to keep 1 Answer and 1 Certificate of Service. Then, you get to keep 1 Answer and 1 Certificate of Service for your own records. And last but not least you mail the plaintiff 1 Answer and 1 Certificate of Service.
That wasn’t so hard, was it?