Surviving Small Claims Court

Presenting Your Case

  • Keep it Simple. Now comes the stressful part. When you begin your presentation to the court, you should explain why the defendant owes you money. Answer any questions the judge or magistrate asks you as clearly and directly and possible, and do not ramble. Show him or her any bills, receipts or letters that you have brought along as proof of your story (be sure to know in advance if you must bring originals, or whether Xerox copies will suffice). If you have a witness, your witness will be allowed to tell what he or she knows after you speak. Next, the person you are suing will explain what his or her position is. Each party has a right to question a witness. If the other party fails to show up, ask the judge for a default judgment--in some states, the judge is not obligated to grant default judgments unless you request one.
  • Getting Your Money. If the case is decided in your favor, the party you sued is ordered to pay. In most states, the judge has the power to order the defendant to pay in installments if it's clear the defendant cannot afford to pay the full amount in a lump sum. If the person who owed you money refuses to pay by the date ordered by the court, or if the payments are stopped later on, you should apply to the court clerk's office for an execution to be issued against the party's wages, property or bank account. Once it's issued, you're required to give the execution to a sheriff, bailiff or court officer who serves the execution on the appropriate employer, banking institution or other party, who has to pay the amount directly to the court officer. The court officer then pays you.

"When you get a judgment in small claims court, always ask to execute against the other party's wages," says Neal Moskow, an attorney in Westport, Connecticut, who specializes in commercial cases. "It's really embarrassing for the other side, who then has to explain to his boss or spouse what's been going on."


Cliff Ennico, best known as the host of the PBS television series MoneyHunt, is the author of the nationally syndicated newspaper column "Succeeding in Your Business," the legal correspondent for the Small Business Television Network at www.sbtv.com and a columnist for Entrepreneur.com. You can find out more about him at www.protectingyourbusiness.com.

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Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist and author of several books on small business, including Small Business Survival Guide and The eBay Business Answer Book. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.

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