A vast percentage of us will get into some kind of debt at some point in our lives – and this number is probably even higher during these fraught economic times. But sometimes the debt can spiral out of control and we find ourselves unable to keep up with the payments. These debts can be for anything from credit cards and store cards to personal loans or car finance agreements. Whatever the debts are for, if you find yourself seriously in arrears a process server will eventually serve you with a summons. This means a creditor has initiated a court action against you to collect the debt you owe, plus any interest or fees.
But what do you do if this happens to you? First, bear in mind that the paperwork, usually delivered to you by one of many nationwide process servers, will generally consist of both a summons and a complaint. The complaint will include a summary of the charges against you whilst the summons will be the order requiring you to appear to answer the charges. It is important that you understand the charges against you because, as will be discussed later, if you really feel that the amount is unfair you may want to appeal.
Above all, don’t panic! Just because you have received the summons it does not mean you are going to go to jail or even necessarily to court. Nobody is going to show up and take away all your possessions. You have time to take stock and decide on your course of action. Many people’s automatic reaction is to get angry and immediately phone the number on the papers to abuse the person on the end of the phone, or even abuse the process server who has delivered the documentation. Don’t do this. Yes, you do need to respond within a certain amount of time but getting aggressive or acting impulsively will not do you any good. In fact, a tendency to act impulsively may well be part of the reason you have received the summons to begin with!
But whilst you shouldn’t panic, it is also imperative that you don’t ignore the summons. Many people make the mistake of doing this simply because they find the amount of money that they owe too intimidating. There is still the mistake assumption that you have to pay the amount in full or risk a visit from the bailiffs, prosecution or worse. This is not how the summons process works, as you will discover if you look into it a little more closely. Generally speaking you will be able to pay in installments or settle the debt for less than the full balance.
When answering the summons (and there will usually be a number on the paperwork for you to call) you should also for a detailed bill of particulars from the attorney for the plaintiff. Even if you’re pretty sure that the amount of money they say you owe is correct, it’s always best to double-check. And of course, if you totally disagree with the amount stated then you need all the details so you can start putting a case together. There are also specific guidelines to filing your answer and accompanying documents. For one thing, you should give a copy of your answer to the plaintiff or their attorney, and file the original answer with the court.
If you’re pretty sure that you do owe the amount stated then please don’t waste time contesting it as this will only cost you more money getting legal representation and so on. Bear in mind that the total figure may well include interest, late fees and court costs. Whilst you may not like paying these, they will still be owed as part of the debt.
Once you’ve answered and agreed that you owe the stated amount, the good news is that it is perfectly possible to avoid going to court altogether. After all, this saves time and money for all concerned parties. What you can do is arrange a payment plan with an agent for the plaintiff (usually an attorney or debt collection agency). You may be able to pay in monthly installments and even reduce the overall amount to pay if you can come up with a reasonable sum. Remember, if you’re unsure about how to work out the most realistic payment plan for you, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau are always there to give help and advice to people in debt.
Summary: If you’re in debt and you receive a court summons, you first reaction may be to panic. But there’s no reason to do this, as if you follow the correct procedure you should be able to work out a payment plan that will work for you.