When Someone Owes You Money

If someone owes you money and you haven’t had any success getting this person or company to pay you can start a court case. When you start the court case you are the plaintiff. The person you sue is called the defendant. You may start the case against more than one defendant as long as the reasons you are suing them are connected. If you win the case you will be able to get a judgment against the defendant. Then you can collect the money you are owed.

If you are owed rent money, or maintenance or child support, this is not the right section for you. Visit Homes & Evictions or Families & Children.


Which Court to Start the Case

There are many different courts in New York State that can decide cases about money problems. But not every court can decide every case. Some courts can only decide cases up to a certain amount of money. For example, the Civil Court of the City of New York can only decide cases up to $50,000. While Supreme Courts can decide cases suing for an unlimited amount of money. For help learning which court to start your case go to The Right Court for Your Problem. If you want to start your case in Small Claims Court (cases up to $10,000), the information in this section is not right for you.

Besides starting the case in the right court, you have to start the case in the right place. This is called venue. You can start the case in the county where you or the defendant live. Or, you can start the case in a county where you or the defendant work or do business. Or, you can start the case in the county where the dispute started, like where a contract was entered or broken.


The Summons and Complaint

To start a case for money, the plaintiff fills out forms called a Summons and a Complaint, or a Summons with Notice. A Summons and a Summons with Notice both say the name of the court; the names of the plaintiff and defendant - these are written at the top of the form in a box called the caption; the Index Number or Case Number of the case - this number is given to you by the court; a space for the date the summons is filed with the court; and your name, address and telephone number, along with your signature.

If you choose to start the case with a Summons with Notice, then the Summons with Notice also tells the defendant why you are suing and the amount of money you are asking the court for. The Summons with Notice tells the defendant that he or she must demand a complaint or the plaintiff will ask the court for a judgment. If the defendant demands a complaint, you have 20 days to deliver one to the defendant or the case may be dismissed.

If you choose to start the case with a Summons and a Complaint, the Complaint tells the defendant and the court all about the case. Like all legal papers, the Complaint should be typed or printed neatly in English, in black ink, on 8 ½ x11 inch paper, double spaced, using one side of the paper only. Papers should be stapled together. The plaintiff tells his or her story in the complaint using numbered paragraphs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5...). The first numbered paragraph says who you are, like: “I am John Smith and I am the plaintiff in this case.” Then, who the defendant is, what happened and when, what each defendant did, and how this hurt you. Each paragraph tells one short, but important, part of the story. The Complaint should end with a paragraph that says what the plaintiff wants the Court to do, like give the plaintiff a judgment against the defendant for xxx dollars. Many courts have samples on their websites or can give you one at the courthouse or Court Help Center. Here is an example from the New York County Supreme Court. Make enough copies of the court papers for yourself and each defendant. The Court gets the original papers. You can contact the court to see if it has a form for you, where you go to file your papers, how the filing fee must be paid, and if you need anything else, like a Request for Judicial Intervention (RJI) form.

To start the case, go to the courthouse and pay the filing fee and get your Index Number or Docket Number. If you can’t afford to pay the court fees, you can ask for a fee waiver. Put the Index or Docket number and the date of the filing of the summons on all the sets of the papers. In some Counties and Case Types you can E-file your papers over the internet.

Now you are ready to deliver the papers to the defendant. This is called service and it is very important that it is done the right way. It is also important that you file proof of how the papers were delivered. Read How Legal Papers are Delivered.


What Happens Next

Depending on how the papers are served, the defendant has either 20 or 30 days to serve and file an Answer or to ask the court to dismiss the case by making a motion. A defendant asks the court to dismiss the case when he or she thinks there is a reason for the court to end the case right away. For example, the defendant can ask the court to dismiss the case because the papers were not served the right way, or because the claim happened too many years ago and is not allowed. If the defendant loses the motion asking to dismiss the case, the defendant can still file an Answer and the case continues. You will have to prove the truth of the claims in your complaint.

The defendant’s Answer tells you and the court the reasons the defendant says you should not win the case. These are called defenses. The defendant can also make a claim against you called a counterclaim.

To learn more about what happens next read Court Case Basics. There may also be helpful information on your Court’s website.

If the defendant does not answer the summons, or file a motion, you may be able to get a money judgment against the defendant. This is called a default judgment. You may need to ask the court for a hearing called an Inquest in order to get your money judgment.

Remember that you and the other side can agree to settle the case at any time.

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