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10 Tips

By LAURA T. COFFEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 21, 2001


How to take someone to small claims court

If you think your landlord, contractor, doctor or another person or business owes you money, small claims court could provide you with a way to resolve the matter quickly. Once you file your complaint, your dispute likely will be heard within a month or two, and the hearing should take 15 minutes or less. You'll also avoid the expense of hiring and paying an attorney.

1. Know what's required. You must be able to assign a dollar value to your dispute if you plan to sue in small claims court. In Florida, the dollar amount involved must be $5,000 or less.

2. See the big picture. Even if you have a claim for more than $5,000, it may be worth your while to go to small claims court rather than regular court. You'll be able to put the matter behind you more quickly, and you'll save money on legal fees.

3. Be reasonable. Try to settle the matter on an informal basis first. If that doesn't work, start writing letters to the person or company. Keep copies of all your correspondence so you can show the judge you made a good-faith effort to solve the problem.

4. Keep good records. Hang on to receipts, warranties, contracts, leases, repair estimates, paid bills, canceled checks and other supporting documents. If possible, set aside before and after photos of an item that was damaged.

5. Do your homework. The atmosphere is more relaxed in small claims court than in regular court, but you still need to be thoroughly prepared. You must present enough evidence to prove your case.

6. Take a test drive. To calm your nerves before your court date, sit in on some cases, ideally ones being heard by your judge. Notice how important it is to present the facts calmly and succinctly, and to clearly state how much money you're seeking.

7. Be realistic. Ask yourself how likely it is that you'll be able to collect a dime even if you win. If the person you're suing has no money, the small claims process could be a waste of time.

8. Get what you're owed. If you do decide to go to court, ask the judge to require the defendant to cover your filing costs and other court fees.

9. Collect your judgment. If you don't receive your money promptly after you win, you can send a letter warning of your intention to start the formal collection process. Then you can have the debtor's wages garnisheed, have money taken out of the debtor's account or file a lien against the debtor's property.

10. Seek detailed advice. Check out the book How to Win in Small Claims Court in Florida by Mark Warda. Your public library should have a copy.

-- Sources: www.kiplinger.comKiplinger's Personal Finance magazin ; FreeAdvice.com; Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court; and "Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court" by Ralph Warner

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