It is never a pleasant experience when you answer the door and find a process server with a brand new lawsuit for a past due debt. Once you are served, the worse thing you can do is nothing, which is a common reaction. If you ignore the lawsuit, a Civil Judgment will eventually be entered against you.

Having the lawsuit reviewed by an attorney is the first thing you should do. But if you can’t get to a lawyer right away, you need to respond to the lawsuit. How you respond to a Florida case depends on whether the case is a Small Claims, County, or Circuit Court case.

SMALL CLAIMS – Small Claims Court is handled by County Court Judges, and is for cases with dollar amounts less than $5,000. The rules are less formal, and cases are often handled without attorneys. If you are served with a Small Claims lawsuit, you will usually have a Pre-Trial date already listed in the paperwork. You normally do not need to file a written response. When you go to the Pre-Trial Hearing, the Clerk will ask you if you admit or deny the debt. If you deny it, the Clerk will set the matter for a trial. If you admit, but need time to pay, there are often mediators who can help you reach a settlement, or you can settle directly with the creditor’s lawyer. If you do not attend the Pre-Trial Hearing, a Judgment will be entered against you.

COUNTY COURT – If the dollar amount of a debt is more than $5,000, but less than $15,000, the matter is heard in County Court. Unlike Small Claims where a Pre-Trial Hearing is already set, in these cases, a written response must be filed within 20 days of service. If an Answer is not filed, a Default will be entered and eventually a Judgment. The method and place to file your Answer is listed in the paperwork you received.

CIRCUIT COURT – If the dollar amount is more than $15,000, it is in the Circuit Court. The procedure is just like County Court cases, in that; you must file a written response within 20 days of service, or risk a Default and Judgment.

If you cannot get to a lawyer right away, any Answer is usually sufficient to avoid a Default. It does not have to be perfect or have legal jargon. Just make sure you follow the instructions on how and where to file. After that, you really should hire a lawyer to represent you or at least to review the case, especially for County and Circuit Court cases.