First – Seeking and Getting Legal Help
First, you should consider contacting the Maryland Court Help Center staffed by legal aid attorneys who can assist you if you choose to represent yourself in court, or who may be able to connect you with legal representation.. There are volunteer lawyers available who can discuss your case with you and who may help you prepare for court. Even if you owe the debt, you may have defenses that you are unaware of or options that will allow you to pay less than you owe.
The Centers are open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. If you can’t make it during that time, you can get help now.
The Centers have walk-in locations throughout the state. For an in-person location near you, click here. It’s important to remember that these lawyers will help you by providing information about what your best resources or course of action may be, but will not be your lawyer in court.
For more information in Spanish:
Additionally, you may watch the following video from the Court on obtaining help, Click Here
Second – Possible Defenses You May Have
There are several legal defenses that may be available to you. Listed below are the most common ones. You may have other defenses, too. To determine if these or other defenses may apply to you, you may want to get help now.
Common defenses include:
- You do not owe the debt that you were sued for or you do not owe the full amount
- You have already reached a payment plan with the creditor
- You did not receive important court documents or did not receive them correctly (Improper Service)
- The debt is too old to collect
- It is not your debt, but a spouse’s or other family member’s debt
- You discharged the debt in bankruptcy
- You were sued in the wrong court
- You are a victim of identity theft and never incurred the debt
- Other Defenses
You do not owe the debt that you were sued for or you do not owe the full amount
If you do not owe the debt, you will need to gather the documents to prove this. Documents that may help you include proof that you made payments or that the debt is not in your name. You may need to get some documents from a bank or other institution as proof. You should gather these documents to bring to court.
Please note that creditors will often sell debts to third-party debt buyers and the debt buyer, who may very well be a company whose name you do not recognize, is filing the collection lawsuit. If that is the case, the debt buyer needs to show that it legally owns the right to collect the debt.
Please click here for information about presenting your documents in a remote hearing: https://mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/import/eservices/pdf/remotehearingsguidelines.pdf You may also use witnesses or witness statements (called affidavits) to aid your claim. For more information about calling witnesses or preparing your witness statements please see here.
You have already reached a payment plan with the creditor suing you
If you have already reached an agreement with the creditor who is suing you and have a plan to pay then you should take two steps. First, you should make sure that you have a written agreement for the payment plan. Second, you should contact your creditor who is suing you and confirm your payment plan agreement. If you can’t find your copy of that agreement in writing, ask them to send you one.
Even if they confirm the agreement, you may still need to appear in court! Unless you receive a document saying that the case was dismissed, you should appear and present the agreement to the court. If you do not appear, the Court may not know about your agreement. If that happens, the Court may rule against you, and the creditor may take your wages or your property.
There are rules for how you should be “served” – meaning, how you should receive your “Writ of Summons” and “Complaint”. You should have received these documents:
- In-person (you or a person at your residence who is at least 18 years old), or
- By certified mail that is “restricted delivery”
If you received these documents in a different way, or did not receive the documents at all, then you may not have been properly served. See here for more details and what your options are if you have not been properly “served.”
Your debt may be too old to collect. In Maryland, this is generally true if you have been sued more than three years after the last time you missed a payment. For example, if the last payment you made was in November 2016 and you were supposed to make a payment in December 2016 but you did not, you should be sued by December 2019.
Some lawsuits may be brought four or more years after the last missed payment, you should check with an attorney.
You should collect records of the payments you made. These records may be things like credit card statements or payment receipts. You should gather any documentation that you can find to prove that the debt is not within the time limit.
If the creditor does not file suit within the time limit, then the court generally will not order you to pay the debt.
One important thing that makes Maryland different from other places you may have lived: even if you have admitted to owing the debt since your last payment, a creditor may still not collect if the debt is more than three years old.
For more details about the time limits, see https://www.peoples-law.org/time-limits-debts.
You are generally not responsible for the debt of your spouse or another family member unless you agreed to be responsible for repayment by co-signing. Check the paperwork – if your name is on the account, or if you signed the agreement, you may be responsible for paying the debt even if you didn’t spend the money or buy the goods.
You should NOT be responsible for the debt of your spouse or family member if:
- You did not sign an agreement holding you personally responsible for that particular debt
- The debt arose prior to your marriage.
- The debt arose after your divorce.
- You can show that the debt is fraudulent.
This includes medical expenses, unless your child was a minor and you are legally responsible for him or her. For more information about spouse’s debt or for questions about a spouse’s debt after they die see this page: https://www.peoples-law.org/spouses-debts
You have declared Bankruptcy
If you have an ongoing bankruptcy filing, the case may be subject to an “automatic stay”, meaning that it cannot proceed. You should notify the Court and the creditor suing you that you have filed for bankruptcy and gather documentation and proof of the proceeding. They may try to have the stay lifted so that the case can proceed, may try to collect the debt through the bankruptcy process or may write off the debt.
If your bankruptcy has concluded, the debt may have been discharged (that is canceled). If that is the case, then any effort to collect it would violate the discharge order. For more information on declaring bankruptcy click here or for legal advice contact MVLS for more information. https://mvlslaw.org/get-legal-help/ or by calling (410) 547-6357 between 9 and noon Monday through Thursday.
You were sued in the wrong location
If you are being sued in a County (including Baltimore City) other than where you live or where you signed the contract with the creditor, you may have a “venue” defense. That means that the lawsuit was filed in the wrong place. In that case, the lawsuit may be dismissed or transferred to the correct location.
You are a victim of identity theft and do not owe the debt
If you don’t owe the debt and believe someone else used your identity to rack up debt in your name, you should gather any documents that you have proving this mistake. For example, if you have been a victim of identity theft, you may obtain a police report detailing the identity theft or other documentation that proves you were a victim. For more help with identity theft issues see the Attorney General website: https://www.
There are other defenses that pertain to automobile loans and other circumstances. Get help now.
OTHER ARGUMENTS YOU MAY MAKE:
- If the creditor who sued you owes you money, you may generally file a “counterclaim” (in other words, you can file suit against the person or company suing you). Counterclaims must be filed within 25 days of receiving the Writ of Summons and Complaint. If you miss the deadline, you can file papers and ask the court for permission to file a late counterclaim.
- If the creditor is suing several people, including you, you may sue another defendant in a “cross-claim” if you believe the other defendant owes you for the money the plaintiff claims you owe.
- If you believe someone who has not been sued owes you money that should be used to pay the creditor who is suing you, you may file a “third-party claim” against that person at least 10 days before trial.
- If your counterclaim, cross-claim, or third party claim is for more than $5,000, the entire case may be moved from Small Claims Court and more formal rules of evidence and procedure will apply.
- If you believe one of these situations may apply to you get help now.
Third – Respond to the Summons
If you have been sued in District Court you should have received two documents: A document called “Writ of Summons” and a document called a “Complaint”. If you have not received these documents click here.
The Writ of Summons
First, take a look at the “Writ of Summons”. The box in the top right corner has information about where and when your trial is going to take place. Take note of the trial date and time. The trial room number is also in the box in the top right corner.
The Courthouse address is located at the top of the form. You should plan on attending the trial at that date and time.
The Notice to Defend
Next, you should detach the bottom portion of the “Writ of Summons”, which is called a “Notice of Intention to Defend.” It is important that you fill out the form and return it to the Court.
Usually, you have 15 days to file a Notice of Intent to Defend. However, you should send in the notice even if you have missed the deadline and you should appear in court even if you have not sent in the Notice of Intent to Defend. Even if you are unsure what your defenses might be, it is important to send that Notice of Intention to Defend to the Court.
Don’t forget – the trial against you can proceed even if you do not send in the “Notice of Intention to Defend” or show up in court. The creditor who is suing you may win the case without a trial. This is called obtaining a default judgment or an Affidavit Judgment. Once a judgment is obtained, the creditor who sued you can garnish your wages or take your property. No matter how nervous you are, it is better to show up than to let the creditor suing you win without you there.
During COVID, you may be able to attend the hearing remotely. If you wish to appear remotely, you should contact the clerk of the court where the action is pending. You may need to fill out the following form titled Motion for Remote Proceedings or to Appear Remotely: https://mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/court-forms/ccdc110.pdf
Also review the following page about remote hearings: https://mdcourts.gov/district/remotehearings and this page about procedures: https://mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/import/eservices/pdf/remotehearingsguidelines.pdf
Please check here for the specific Court procedures during the pandemic for the county where your case is located. Be aware that there are district and circuit courts. District courts are where most small claims cases are filed.
Delaying Your Trial Date
If you cannot attend at the requested time, you may ask the Court to reschedule the trial by asking for a postponement, also called a continuance. You can request a postponement by filing the proper form. The form you need to send in, called a Motion for Continuance/Postponement, is located here:
The Court does not have to grant your request for a postponement, so don’t assume your trial date has been changed unless you get a letter from the court or find a new date online.
Use this website for updated information about your court case: http://casesearch.courts.state.md.us/casesearch//processDisclaimer.jis
If your case has been filed in Baltimore City, the process is a little different.
To request a postponement or remote (telephone) hearing for a case filed in Baltimore City, send a written request to firstname.lastname@example.org or 501 E. Fayette St, Baltimore, MD, 21202. You may also hand-deliver a written request to the court’s drop-box located at the courthouse entrance. The drop-box is checked daily. Your request must include your name, case number, current mailing address, contact number, and email address if you have one.
Fourth – Negotiating a Settlement
If you owe the money the creditor who is suing you says you do and do not have defenses that would help you win, you may be able to take steps that allow you to pay some or all of your debt in smaller payments.
If you cannot keep up with debt payments and bills because of unforeseen or unexpected circumstances there may be resources available to you. Examples of this circumstance, called “financial hardship,” include losing your job, significant life event such as a death in the family or a relationship breakdown, injury or illness, or an emergency event such as the pandemic or other natural disaster.
It is important to know that these are not court defenses. However, the creditor who sued you may agree to temporarily reduce or delay your payments. Sometimes, they may impose conditions on payment reductions or deferrals, such as increasing your interest rate.
Many creditors will require a hardship letter if you request help. The letter should include:
- A detailed description of the type of assistance you are requesting
- The cause of the financial hardship
- Any other details that might be relevant to the creditor
Please see here for more information about financial hardship: https://www.peoples-law.org/financial-hardship-sample-letter-creditor
If you owe debts that you are unable to pay, do not own a home, and your only income is from Social Security or a pension, you may also be eligible for “Bankruptcy Bypass.” Contact MVLS for more information. https://mvlslaw.org/get-legal-help/ or by calling (410) 547-6357 between 9 and noon Monday through Thursday.
Contacting a Creditor Directly
You may contact the creditor who is suing you directly to see if they will accept a payment plan that fits your financial situation. If you pay any money towards the debt owed before the trial date, you must notify the court. They will reduce the amount you owe to reflect the payments you have made. Keep copies and records of all the payments you make in paying off the debt.
You do not have to set up a payment plan. If you cannot afford to make the payments, or do not believe you owe the debt, you shouldn’t agree to a payment plan.
If you agree to a payment plan, get the agreement in writing. Keep copies of checks or money order stubs that you use to pay off the debt. It is important to keep a record showing that you made payments on or paid off the debt. Make sure the agreement is filed with the court so there is a record showing you settled. If not, the case may move forward even though you have agreed to a payment plan.
Using a Mediator
Alternatively, you may want to use the Court’s mediators to help negotiate a solution that would satisfy everyone. A mediator is a neutral third party who does not represent you or represent the creditor. A mediator’s job is to reach a solution that is acceptable to both parties. Get help now.
See the Court’s website for more information about mediation: https://mdcourts.gov/legalhelp/mediationadr
And here is a Court Video about Mediation:
It is critical that you put any type of settlement agreement or payment plan in writing. You may want to obtain legal help in reviewing the document. Get help now. Never sign an agreement unless you understand all the terms.
Beware of signing a confessed judgment or consent judgment. Documents called “Confessed Judgments” and “Consent Judgments” both count as a judgment against you. Signing one waives all of your possible defenses and could result in your wages being garnished or a lien being placed against your property.
There is a very common agreement called a “3-506(b) Agreement.” These types of agreements generally state that if you pay the debt as you have agreed, judgment will not be entered against you. However, if you don’t pay the debt as agreed (for example if you miss a payment) judgment will be entered against you.
For more information about negotiating with opposing parties, see the page here https://www.peoples-law.org/talking-other-side-options. Make sure the agreement is filed with the court so the court knows you settled. If not, the case may move forward without you.
If you cannot pay your debt you may consider declaring bankruptcy. You may wish to consult the Legal Aid Bureau www.mdlab.org or the MVLS (410-547-6537). See this page for more information about filing for bankruptcy.
Additionally, if you owe debts that you are unable to pay, do not own a home, and your only income is from Social Security or a pension, you may be eligible for “Bankruptcy Bypass.” Contact MVLS for more information. https://mvlslaw.org/get-legal-help/ or by calling (410) 547-6357 between 9 and noon Monday through Thursday
Fifth – Appearing in Court
If you have defenses or have not been able to settle the case through negotiations or mediation prior to the hearing date you should be prepared to go to court. Most courts have reopened, but please check here for the specific Court procedures during the pandemic for the court in the County where your case will be heard.
- If you need accommodations whether you have communication impairments, mobility impairments, speech and hearing impairments, vision impairments, or learning or cognitive impairments please see here https://www.mdcourts.gov/legalhelp/accommodations. Each court has an ADA Coordinator https://www.mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/import/hr/ada/adacoordinators.pdf
- If you need language help, see this website: https://www.mdcourts.gov/courtlanguage
Even if you did not file a Notice of Intention to Defend before the deadline, you should still go to the hearing listed on the Summons to explain why the court should not enter a judgment against you.
Before the trial, you should prepare your case thoroughly. The judge evaluates the case based only on the evidence presented by you and the other party. You should come prepared to give the judge as much information as possible. If you forget to bring evidence or witnesses to court on the trial date, the judge may not postpone the trial to give you the opportunity to gather evidence.
Usually, it is best to have witnesses come in person to testify in court. Although any available evidence is permitted in a small claims case, judges often prefer live witnesses to written statements.
Documents are generally the strongest evidence, so don’t forget to bring any documents which can help your case.
For more information about how to prepare for your day in court please get help now. For further information about preparing for court, see the following page:
On the day of your hearing, there may be further resources available to you at the courthouse. See: https://probonomd.org/about-us/pbrcs-projects/courtroom-advocacy/
Sixth – What to do if I Lose My Case
If you lose the lawsuit, the creditor who sued you will win a judgment against you. A judgment is a final court order that states you owe money to the creditor. The Plaintiff cannot begin to collect any money from you until 10 days after the date the judgment is entered. You have 30 days to file an appeal if you believe the court was wrong.
If you choose not to pay the money owed, the creditor who sued you has several options to collect the money you owe them. They may be able to garnish your wages, put a lien on your property, or ask the court for the money in your bank account.
Their options for collecting a judgment can be found in this article: https://www.peoples-law.org/collecting-judgment
Challenging the Judgment
If you wish to challenge the judgment you may appeal the case to the Circuit Court within 30 days, There are several different ways to appeal. You can file a Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment (within 10 days), file a Motion to Revise or Vacate the Judgment (within 30 days), or file a Motion for a New Trial (within 10 days).
If you appeal to Circuit Court you will have to pay a filing fee (see Guide to Appeal Fees –https://mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/court-forms/district/forms/acct/dca109a.pdf/dca109a.pdf), unless the Court determines that you are too poor to pay. If you cannot afford the fees, you may ask the court by motion to waive them. See the forms here: https://mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/import/courtforms/joint/ccdc091.pdf
If you filed for a new trial you must state your reasons clearly. If the Court says no, you may still file an appeal. If the Court grants your Motion, you must appear in the District Court for a new trial. You may ask the Court to provide you a recording of your first trial.
On your trial date you should bring with you any evidence that you want the Court to consider. Appeals to Circuit Court are “de novo”. That means they are completely new trials and nothing that happened in the first case is considered on appeal.
Paying the amount owed
You may contact the creditor who sued you or their attorney to arrange to pay the amount owed. If you do not pay the amount owed, or work to set up a payment plan, they may take action against you to get the money, including:
Interrogatories: These are written questions about your income and assets. You must answer truthfully in writing. If you do not answer truthfully, you may face other charges.
Oral Examination: You must appear in court, where you will be required to answer questions about your assets and income.
NOTE: IF YOU FAIL TO RESPOND TO INTERROGATORIES OR APPEAR FOR ORAL EXAMINATION THE COURT MAY ISSUE A BODY ATTACHMENT ORDERING LAW ENFORCEMENT TO BRING YOU TO COURT.
Writ of Execution: The Court may order the sale or seizure of any of your possessions. Some property may be exempt from this order. The exemptions are explained in detail on the reverse side of the Writ of Execution form located here: https://www.mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/court-forms/district/forms/civil/dccv040.pdf/dccv040.pdf
Further, the Court could order you to pay additional expenses such as towing, moving, storage fees, advertising costs, and auctioneer’s fees incurred in executing the writ.
Garnishment of Property: The Court may order a bank or other agent to hold your assets (like any valuable jewelry you may have in a safe deposit box) until further court proceedings.
Garnishment of Wages: The Court may order your employer to withhold a portion of your wages to pay your debt. Some income cannot be taken in this way.
Property Lien: The creditor may be able to attach a lien to any property owned by you. A lien prohibits you from transferring the interest in a property until your debt has been satisfied.
See the following website links for further guidance on garnishment, judgments, and protected income and assets:
Even if you lose your case, there are specific rules about what can be garnished or seized. If these rules are broken, you may need to file a challenge to the creditor’s action or the court’s judgment. https://www.courts.state.md.us/sites/default/files/court-forms/district/forms/civil/dccv036.pdf/dccv036.pdf
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT BENEFITS
Usually, government assistance such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Veterans’ benefits, Unemployment benefits, Workers’ Compensation, and Temporary Cash Assistance cannot be taken. Your CARES Act Stimulus Payment also may not be garnished. The law also protects some other private disability income benefits and most pensions. There are exceptions, however. These federal benefits may be taken to pay delinquent taxes, alimony, child support, and student loans.
A creditor may take the money in your bank account, but you can stop a creditor from taking your money if you have $6,000 or less in your account or if the money in your account is from Social Security or other government or retirement benefits, including your CARES Act Stimulus Payment. If your account is a joint account, a creditor may not be able to garnish the account unless the judgment is against both account holders. If your bank account is frozen, you should contact a lawyer right away to get help. You will need to file a paper called a “motion” with the court to get to your money. You must file your motion within 30 days to get the most protection.
If a creditor who sued you wins a judgment against you, it can ask the court to order your employer to “garnish” your wages. When your wages are garnished, your employer pays part of your wages directly to the creditor who sued you. Your wages cannot be garnished if your disposable wages are less than 30 times the state minimum hourly wage per week.
No more than 25% of your disposable wages can be garnished. This means that you will receive at least 75% of your disposable wages. Your disposable wages are your wages after subtracting the required deductions for federal, state, and local taxes, Social Security, unemployment insurance, State employee retirement systems, and health insurance. This is not true for child support garnishments, which are not consumer debt.
New wage garnishment rules went into effect October 1, 2020. Please see the following brochure: https://mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/court-forms/dccv065br_102020wm.pdf
If the creditor who sued you has a judgment against you, they can ask the court to have the sheriff take or “levy” some of your personal property. Then, the creditor can ask that the sheriff sell this property, and pay the money from that sale to them.
It is very unusual for someone to try to sell your personal property because it often costs more to sell the property than the property is worth. They cannot sell any of your property unless the “fair market value” of all of your property is more than $6,000. The “fair market value” is the money you could get for the property in its current condition, if you sold it at an estate or yard sale. It is NOT what you paid for the property.
Here are some forms:
1: To release property from levy/garnishment or to exempt property from execution: https://mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/court-forms/district/forms/civil/dccv036.pdf/dccv036.pdf
2: To terminate a writ of Garnishment other than wages:
3: Request for writ of garnishment
Please see the following page for more information: https://www.peoples-law.org/debt-collectors-and-law
For information about a house owned by spouses see here https://www.peoples-law.org/spouses-debts
This site offers legal information, not legal advice, hopefully, it will give some guidance on steps you can take when you have been sued. We make every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information and to clearly explain your options. However, we do not provide legal advice – the application of the law to your individual circumstances. For legal advice, you should consult the Maryland Court Help Center or an attorney.