This guide briefly discusses issues related to a debt collection lawsuit. It is written primarily for people who are being sued because of outstanding debts and most references are to materials for Washington State. Visit either of the following web sites for definitions of the terms used here:
What is a Debt Collection Lawsuit?
A debt is a sum of money owed by one person to another. A lawsuit is a legal action by one person or entity against another person or entity, which is decided in a court of law. A debt collection lawsuit is started in a court by a cause of action describing the amount of money owed. The person or entity starting the lawsuit is the plaintiff.
A debt collection lawsuit begins when a summons (notice that a lawsuit is being filed and an explanation of how to respond) and complaint (initial request or plea to a court in a civil matter) are served or filed in a court. This process is governed by the court rules for the court in which the case is filed. The summons and complaint are served (that is, delivered) to the defendant (person who is being sued).
For general information about the documents and processes involved in starting a civil law suit, see our Civil Procedure Guide.
What Laws Govern Debt Collection?
Washington State's collection agency law is located in the Revised Code of Washington at RCW 19.16.
The federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) regulates the behavior of debt collectors. The FDCPA is located in the United States Code at 15 USC 1692. The Federal Trade Commission has a copy of the Act.
How to Proceed
The Federal Trade Commission hosts a Debt Collection FAQ. This FAQ includes the following comment: "What should I do if a debt collector sues me?"
"If a debt collector files a lawsuit against you to collect a debt, respond to the lawsuit, either personally or through your lawyer, by the date specified in the court papers (the summons will contain these dates) to preserve your rights.”
The web site Washington LawHelp has the best resources for helping a debtor answer a debt collection lawsuit. Look at the following publications, found under the subject heading Consumer and Debt, subheading Debt Collection.
For general information on debt collection:
Publications on dealing with debt collection lawsuits:
These two guides will walk you through the process to answer the lawsuit. In addition, the document “How to Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection” includes blank MS Word versions of the documents that you may fill out online and save or print.
- Answer, Affirmative Defenses and Counter-Claims
- Pro Se Notice of Appearance
- Certificate of Service
- Declaration of Defendant Regarding Income and Assets Exempt from Garnishment
The guides will tell you how to fill out the forms and what to do with them once you have completed them. If the defendant (person being sued) for debt collection does not answer the lawsuit, the plaintiff (person bringing the lawsuit) may get a default judgment (court decision for the plaintiff) of the amount owed, as the court will assume that the defendant is not contesting the suit.
Other Helpful Resources on the Internet
Washington State Attorney General has a web page addressing credit and debt.
Federal Trade Commission has a list of resources for dealing with debt.
NOLO’s Guide to Time-Barred Debts: When Collectors Cannot Sue You for Unpaid Debts.
Where can I get information in person and guidance in filling out the forms?
The Debt Collection Defense Clinic, sponsored by the Northwest Justice Project, offers a free half hour legal consultation with a volunteer attorney. It is held in our Seattle branch each Tuesday from 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm and no appointment is necessary.
Collection actions: defending consumers and their assets / Jonathan Sheldon, Carolyn Carter, Chi Chi Wu. KF 1024 .C65
Fair debt collection / Robert J. Hobbs ; contributing authors, Carolyn L. Carter ... [et al.]. KF 1024 .F35
The National Consumer Law Center Guide to Surviving Debt / KF 1040 .N38. A chapter from this book--16 Rules About Which Debts to Pay First--is available online for free.
Washington Practice, v.27, Creditors' remedies--debtors' relief / Marjorie Dick Rombauer. KFW 80 .W3 (Chapter 5, Suits to Collect Debts)