There are many myths and stories out there, most of them perpetuated by debt collectors, about what can happen to you when a creditor brings suit. These myths and outright misrepresentations can often frighten people into inaction (or into paying), which is exactly what the debt collector wants.

Knowledge is power; it can allow you to know what can and, more importantly, what can't happen when a creditor sues you for a debt. As a New Jersey debt relief lawyer, I want to share the straight story about what could happen with you. 

Filing the Lawsuit: The Claim to Be Paid

First, the creditor files a document called a "Complaint" with the court. This sets forth the basis for its claim for money due. As New Jersey is a "notice pleadings" state, you are presumed to know who the creditor is, why it is your creditor, and, in general, why you owe it money. There are usually not a lot of details given.

This can be a bit confusing when the plaintiff (person or entity suing you) is not the original creditor because the plaintiff is a "factor" and bought the debt from someone else. This may raise some defenses, so if you get a Complaint and you do not recognize the plaintiff, you should contact the lawyer for the creditor and see who the original debt holder was.

Serving the Lawsuit

The Complaint is sent to you with another document called a "Summons," which sets forth where the Complaint is to be served upon you and instructions on what you must do if you wish to contest the claim. This involves a written response (called an "Answer") sent to the court and the Plaintiff within 35 days of your receipt of the Summons and Complaint. If you think you might have a defense, you need to consult with a debt relief lawyer right away.

The Summons and Complaint can be served personally or by certified and regular mail. Do not think that not accepting the certified copy will prevent them from serving you. If the regular mail goes through, it is considered served, and the 35-day clock will start ticking.

Entering a Judgment Against You

If no answer is filed within the time allowed, then the creditor has a Default entered, which will prevent you from filing an Answer, and submits paperwork to have a judgment entered against you. This judgment can include some simple interest, the filing fees to bring the suit, and sometimes attorney's fees. Once the judgment is entered, you owe the money, whether or not you may have had grounds to dispute it.

What Creditors Can Do to Collect a Judgment

Once judgment is entered, the creditor has several tools in its toolkit to collect from you. It can levy on a bank account, garnish your wages, or levy on your personal property. It can also record the judgment with the Superior Court in Trenton to create a lien against any real estate you may own. This can cause a problem for you should you try to sell the property or refinance the mortgage.

If the Plaintiff does not know where you work or where your bank accounts are, it can send you a document called an Information Subpoena and force you to tell them! You might be in a position where you are judgment proof, in which case, at least for the time being, there may not be anything the creditor can do.

Steven J. Richardson
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Bankruptcy, Collections, Student Loan, DUI and Traffic Court attorney in Woodbury, NJ.