Planning for the Future / Dealing with the Past
If you have ever been in need of legal services, you may have learned first-hand that it's difficult to get a straight answer about costs. There's a good reason for that.
This post is intended for parents who weren't married when baby was born. In Ohio, an unmarried woman who gives birth to a child is automatically, "by operation of law," the child's sole legal custodian until a court of competent jurisdiction declares otherwise. In a nutshell, that means that an unmarried mother has sole physical and legal custody of the child the moment the child is born until a court says otherwise.
Many initial contacts with our office begin with a panicked call from a consumer who has received a Summons and Complaint in the mail from the local Municipal Court.
Typically the Complaint will arrive via certified mail. If you do not sign for the certified mail, the documents will be returned to the court who issued them and then may be re-mailed to you using first class mail. If the documents are not returned to the post office stating that you, the Defendant, are not at this address, then service on the documents will be considered complete and the lawsuit against you will proceed.
The first step is to ascertain if you actually owe the debt, or if there are defenses for any or all of the debt. The creditor listed may be someone that you have never heard of. This happens when a credit card company or other creditor sells the delinquent account to another company. When this happens, the Complaint will list the name of the original creditor. There typically should be some kind of a document, such as a credit card agreement or a monthly statement attached to the Complaint as well.
Once you have determined whether or not the debt that you are being sued upon is legitimate, you need to decide how you will approach the lawsuit.
My office typically advises people to take one of three approaches:
1) Answer the lawsuit and attempt to fight it on legal grounds;
2) Answer the lawsuit and attempt to negotiate a settlement for less than the amount demanded; or
3) File for bankruptcy protection and avoid paying the debt.
You will notice that “do nothing” is not on the list. If you fail to answer the lawsuit at all, the Court may enter a Default Judgment against you for the full amount of the debt plus interest. Even if you are unemployed and currently unable to pay the debt, your situation may improve, in which case having a judgment against you already may enable the creditor to garnish your wages until the original debt plus interest and some collection fees are paid in full.
If you plan to fight or negotiate settlement on the lawsuit, you will need to file an Answer before the default date (typically 28 days after you were actually served with the Complaint). You will use the same heading as on the Complain, listing the name of the court, case number, judge’s name, and the names of the parties. You will answer each numbered paragraph with “Admit”, “Deny” or “Deny for lack of knowledge.” Answering a Complaint without assistance of a lawyer can be perilous, as your answer can be used against you if you admit all allegations, yet you are expected to answer truthfully.
The Court will set your case for a pre-trial hearing. If you are able to make an offer in settlement of the account, you can communicate this to the creditor’s attorney before the pre-trial hearing, or you may wait until the pre-trial hearing to present the offer. Many larger collection law firms will hire a local attorney with little knowledge of the case to appear at the pre-trial. For this reason, our office finds it is generally better to attempt settlement prior to the hearing because we can deal with the lawyer handling the case instead of a substitute.
If you owe other creditors, or if you are simply not able to make an adequate settlement offer, you may consider filing for bankruptcy protection. The lawsuit cannot proceed while a bankruptcy case is pending, and filing for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 may discharge your liability on the debt entirely, or allow you to pay back a lower amount over time.
Whether to fight, settle, or file for bankruptcy protection is up to you.
"We are a debt relief agency. We help people file for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code."