How to Answer When You Get Sued (Step-by-step Guide)
Authored By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)
If you were served with papers from a court in Montana, this article will help you:
- Learn the steps you should take to protect your rights
- Get legal help
- Download free court forms
If you get served with court papers, look at them right away. Sometimes people don't want to look at court papers because it's scary and overwhelming. Still, if you ignore the lawsuit, it won’t go away and you could end up worse off. If you miss your deadline to respond, you could be caught by surprise with a wage garnishment or a sheriff removing you from your rental.
The only way to take part in the lawsuit and have your voice heard is to file a written Answer with the Clerk of Court before your deadline. Even if you call the other side and work something out, that doesn’t mean the lawsuit against you will go away. If you miss your deadline, whoever sued you may get whatever they asked for in the court papers.
The sooner you read the court papers, the faster you can take action. Dealing with the court papers right away will help you in the long run.
There are six steps you can take to protect your rights when you are served with a lawsuit in Montana. It is a good idea to:
- Read the Summons and Complaint
- Find out your deadline to file a written Answer
- Get legal help
- Complete free written Answer and Fee Waiver forms
- File your Answer and Fee Waiver forms with the Clerk of Court
- Attend all your court hearings and mediations
We’ll talk about each step below.
When someone sues you, you will be served with a Summons and a Complaint.
The Summons will usually be the page on top. The Summons will say:
- Which Court the lawsuit is filed in,
- How many days you have to file a written Answer to the Complaint, and
- That you must pay a fee to the Court to file a written Answer.
We’ll talk more about each of these in the next few steps.
The Complaint is often stapled behind the Summons. The Complaint will say:
- Why the Plaintiff or Petitioner is suing you, and
- What the Plaintiff or Petitioner is asking the court to do.
Read the Summons. Read the Complaint.
The Summons will tell you how many days you have to file a written Answer with the Clerk of Court. The clock starts counting the day after you were served. Sometimes, the date on the Summons will be earlier than the date you were actually served. Go with the date you were served. It might be helpful for you to write on the Summons the date you were served. For example, “served on May 6, 2019.” In this case, you would begin counting down to your deadline beginning on May 7, 2019.
How you count the number of days depends on how many days the Summons says you have to file an Answer. In general, if the Summons says you have:
- 10 days or less to file an Answer: count only business days.
- More than 10 days to file an Answer: count all calendar days (including weekends and holidays). If your deadline falls on a federal holiday or weekend, it pushes your deadline back to the next business day.
Example One: You were served with eviction court papers on Wednesday, May 6, 2019. The Summons says you have 10 business days to file an Answer.
- Start the clock on May 7
- Only count business days
- Your deadline in this example would be May 20, 2019.
Example Two: You were served with divorce papers on Wednesday, May 6, 2019. The Summons says you have 21 days to file an Answer.
- Start the clock on May 7
- Count all calendar days, including weekends and holidays.
- You deadline in this example would be May 28, because in 2019 the 27th was on Memorial Day, a federal holiday.
There is a fee to file an Answer with the Court. If you can’t afford the fee, you can file a form to ask the Court to let you file your Answer without paying the fee. That form is called the Statement of Inability to Pay. You will need to file this form before you can file your Answer, to give the Court time to decide whether to waive your fee. So, if you don’t think you can afford to pay the filing fee, make sure to give yourself 1 - 2 days before your deadline to file an Answer to ask the Court to waive your filing fee.
Now that you have figured out how many days you have to file an Answer, you can better plan your next steps.
It is always a good idea to talk to a lawyer if you are served with a lawsuit. A lawyer can help give you legal advice on:
- The number of days you have to file an Answer,
- The merits of the lawsuit against you,
- Possible defenses you might have,
- Possible counterclaims you might be able to raise, and
- What you should put in your Answer that you file.
A counterclaim is something you can bring when you think the person who sued you has done something that breaks a specific law. Counterclaims are complicated. And the rules are strict on when and how you can bring them. The same is true for possible defenses that you might raise. The flip side is that if you have a good defense or counterclaim, a lawyer might be willing to represent you for a reduced upfront cost, or none at all. That upfront cost to hire a lawyer is called a retainer. Learn more about how lawyers set their fees.
We strongly encourage you to talk to a lawyer if you think you have any defenses or counterclaims that you should put in your Answer.
You must pay a court filing fee to file a written Answer. If you cannot afford the fee, you can file a Statement of Inability to Pay. This form requires you to say what your monthly income and expenses are, and asks the judge to let you file the Answer without paying the fee because your income is so low. Remember, you want to give yourself a couple days before your Answer is due to ask the Court to waive the filing fee.
You can ask the Clerk of Court for the Statement of Inability to Pay or you can find the form to ask for a fee waiver on this website.
How to Complete the Answer Forms
When you fill out the Answer form, you want to write clearly:
- Your name, address, and phone number in the top left corner
- What facts in the Complaint you think are wrong
- Why you disagree with what the Petitioner or Plaintiff is asking for
- Sign the written Answer, and include a Certificate of Service or Proof of Service.
The court will contact you at the address and/or phone number you put in the Answer. If your contact information isn’t correct or the clerk can’t read it, then you won’t get the court’s notices about when to come to court. If you don’t show up at court for your hearing or trial, you’ll likely lose your case.
So, put down reliable contact information in the top left corner of your Answer. You must put your own name. If you use someone else’s address or phone number, make sure they agree to tell you right away if they hear from the court about your case.
A Certificate of Service or Proof of Service is a statement to the Court saying that you served an exact copy of what you filed to the other party. Most of the Answer forms you find on this website will include this statement, usually near the end.
How to Read the Complaint and Respond in Your Answer
Earlier we talked about the Summons and Complaint. The Summons will tell you in which court you were sued and how long you have to file a written Answer. The Complaint will say why the Plaintiff or Petitioner is suing you, and what they are asking the court to do. Your written Answer should respond to what is said in the Complaint.
The Complaint will start with header on the top left. The header will tell you if the person suing you has hired a lawyer to represent them. You will use whatever contact information in the top left header to serve the other party with your Answer.
Below the header in the Complaint will be a caption. The caption will say:
- The court the lawsuit is filed in
- The names of the parties (Plaintiff or Petitioner and Respondent or Defendant)
- The case number.
If you were served with a lawsuit, you will be either the Respondent or Defendant. If it’s a family law case, like a Parenting Plan, you will be the Respondent. For most other cases, you would be the Defendant. The Court must treat both sides fairly.
Below the caption in the Complaint should be a list of numbered paragraphs. Each paragraph will state a fact about the case. Taken together, the numbered paragraphs are the reason why the Plaintiff or Petitioner is suing you.
In your Answer, you must respond to each paragraph in the Complaint. You respond to each paragraph by denying or admitting the information in that paragraph. For example, you can say, “I admit paragraphs 1 through 5. I deny paragraphs 6 and 7."
If you don’t have enough information to deny or admit a paragraph, you can say, “I don’t have enough information to admit or deny the allegation in paragraph 8, so I deny it.”
You can deny or admit a part of a paragraph. This happens when some of the information in the paragraph is true and some of it is false. For example, a Complaint might say in paragraph 9, “Defendant did not pay for the work performed in May 2019.” If it is true that the work was done in May 2019 but you did actually pay for it, you might say “I the Defendant admit in part and deny in part paragraph 9. The work was performed in May 2019, but I deny that I did not pay.”
A lawyer can help you complete the Answer correctly, and with the wording of what you want to say.
How to Find the Answer Forms
We have free court forms on this website that you can use to file a written Answer. Many of our Answer forms come with instructions. Use the instructions to help you fill out the forms in the right way.
The kind of Answer form you should file depends on the type of legal case and where it is filed. Here is where you can find Answer forms:
- Answer to Complaint in District Court
- Answer to Complaint in Justice or City Court
- You may also find the right form for you by filtering by legal topic and then narrowing your results at our Self Help Forms Page. (Forms for divorce and parenting use "Response" instead of "Answer.")
- You may also be able to find the right form at https://courts.mt.gov/Forms.
You must file your Answer with the Clerk of Court where the Summons and Complaint were filed. Remember, you can find the court name on the Summons and on the Complaint. If you don’t know the address of the court, use the court locator.
After you file with the Clerk of Court, you must send a copy of your Answer to the person who sued you. Remember, use the contact information on the top left header of the Complaint. Most of the Answer forms on this website include a Certificate of Service that you sign to show that you properly served the other party using the contact information they gave in the Complaint.
The court will tell you by mail when it schedules a hearing, mediation, or conference.
- A hearing is when both parents will meet with the Judge in a formal setting.
- A mediation is when a neutral third party tries to help parties come to an agreement out of court. Sometimes a mediation will be called a “settlement conference.” Not all courts will schedule a mediation or settlement conference.
- Pre-trial or scheduling conferences are used by the court to set a timeline and requirements for the parties to move toward a trial.
You must show up to every court hearing, mediation, or conference that the court schedules. If you don’t show up, you will likely lose your case.
If you cannot make a date set by the court you must:
- Have a very good reason
- Explain to the court why you can’t make it before it happens
- Ask the court to reschedule the hearing, mediation, or conference.
Some courts will let you reschedule by calling the Clerk of Court. If the Clerk of Court tells you that you must file a written request, you may use a Motion Packet. In the Motion, you must state your reason and ask the court to reschedule. You can find a blank Motion Packet on this website.
At the first hearing, the Judge will likely outline the timeline of the lawsuit. Some lawsuits take longer than others. For example, divorces often take longer than an eviction or a small claims case.
Follow all Court Orders. The Judge may give you verbal orders during the hearing. You must follow those. A Judge may also issue written orders throughout the case. You’ll need to follow those as well. The Clerk of Court will mail you the Judge’s written orders at the address they have on file for you.
If you get confused about what exactly the Judge has ordered during a hearing, it is a good idea ask for clarification. If you are having a hard time understanding a Judge’s written orders, you’ll want to have a lawyer look them over.
You can learn more tips for representing yourself in court.
- The State Bar Lawyer Referral Service may provide you with contact information for attorneys who provide the type of assistance you are seeking, for a fee. You can contact the State Bar Lawyer Referral Service at (406) 449-6577 or montanabar.org.
- Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) provides free civil, non-criminal legal help to eligible clients. Learn more about how to apply for free legal help in Montana.
- If you qualify for help from MLSA, you may be able to get free legal advice from a volunteer attorney by email using Ask Karla.
- Contact your nearest Self Help Law Center for free legal information and forms.
- Download a free Answer to Complaint in District Court form
- Download a free Answer to Complaint in Justice or City Court form
- Find more forms at https://courts.mt.gov/Forms