Debt Collection Lawsuit

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 available for free online.

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 WashingtonLawHelp 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:

Debtors’ Rights: Dealing with Collection Agencies

Publications on dealing with debt collection lawsuits:

How to Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection

This guide is to help a person being sued for a debt collection respond to the lawsuit. 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. Includes blank MS Word and PDF versions of the forms that you may fill out online and save or print.

When Should I File a Declaration of Exempt Income and Assets

This guide is for when you are sure that your assets and income cannot be garnished. The guide will tell you how to fill out the form and what to do with it once you have completed it. 

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.

NOLO’s Handling Debt Collection Calls: Do’s and Don’ts .

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.

Helpful Books:

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.  During the COVID-19 crisis this book 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)

If You Need More Help:

Guide to Debt Defense Legal Clinics & Resources in King County

Links Updated: October 2020