Do I Have to Respond to a Lawsuit?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 15, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You've been served with a summons and complaint. If you just ignore it, will it go away? Unfortunately not. You do have to respond to the lawsuit. If you ignore this problem, you risk losing the case by default.

Deadlines to respond vary depending on the context of the case, your location, and whether the case is filed in federal or state court. But usually you have 20 to 30 days to file an answer. Failure to respond altogether could result in a default judgment, meaning the court determines that the opposition wins based on its filings exclusively.

First Things First

Do not panic. As long as you communicate with the court and follow procedure, you can usually get more time to submit almost any filing. Better to file something and request an extension than to ignore the court's deadlines altogether.

Many states will tell you exactly what you need to do when someone files suit. Check for state resources online or on the court clerk's website for the county in which the suit against you was filed.

You may want to stop in at the local courthouse if it has a self-help center and get some background material designed to explain legal procedure to non-lawyers. Also consider consulting with a lawyer or several.

Consult With Counsel

Many attorneys consult on cases for free or a minimal fee. This gives you and counsel an opportunity to superficially assess a case and get the basics down. If you decide to work together, your lawyer will likely require more background and some payment to begin.

But even if you choose not to work with the first lawyer you meet, exchanging with an attorney about the case will help you. By answering an attorney's questions and learning your legal options, you will gain a better understanding of how the case looks legally.

Service and Other Technicalities

Your lawyer will necessarily see the case differently than you do. That is a good thing. For the parties, lawsuits can be emotional and personal. But for counsel, it's business, meaning the approach must be strategic.

Your lawyer will look at the procedure followed by the opposition to make sure that the papers you received were properly served. Counsel will examine the complaint and consider whether the proper response is a motion to dismiss or an answer denying the allegations in the complaint or initiating negotiations with the opposition.

Non-lawyers are often dismissive of technicalities in the law. But procedure is dictated for a reason and failure to follow it can have serious consequences for you and the opposition. You need someone on your side who understands how this works both for and against you.

Receiving a complaint -- or even a letter threatening one in the near future -- can be scary. But like most scary things in life, familiarity with the facts minimizes fear. Do not ignore a lawsuit if one is filed against you. Face this head-on and get help, and this problem will be resolved.

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