Answering a debt collection lawsuit? Don't make unnecessary admissions.

In July of 2013, Minnesota made some much-needed changes to the language on its summons. The summons, of course, is the notice that comes with the lawsuit that tells the defendant how long he has to respond. The new summons is written in plain-English and very clearly explains that the defendant must answer the lawsuit within 20 days of service or a default judgment will be entered.

Since the state rolled it out, I've often wondered what effect the new summons language would have on debt collection cases. It's well-known that the majority of debt collection lawsuits result in a default judgment because consumers don't respond. Would the clear explanation provided by the new summons result in more consumers answering the lawsuit?

According to at least one debt collection attorney that I've talked to, more consumers are now answering the complaint, but not in a way that helps them defend against the lawsuit. This collection attorney told me that since the new summons went into use, his firm is receiving a bunch of "answers" from consumers that are really just letters admitting that the person owes the debt with an explanation about why he can't afford to pay.

I suppose it's better to send some sort of written response than to ignore the lawsuit entirely, but when you admit that you owe the debt in your answer, you're making a big mistake. Even if you believe that you owe the money, you're entitled to deny the allegations and force the creditor to prove its case in front of a judge. And if you're being sued by a debt-buyer, there are many possible defenses, even if the underlying debt appears to be valid.

If you've been served with a collection lawsuit, your best bet is to talk to a good consumer lawyer immediately. Although there are a number of forms available on the internet to help you answer a lawsuit, simply filling out a boilerplate form is no substitute for discussing your case with an attorney. If you don't fill out the form correctly--either because you make unnecessary admissions or fail to list all of your defenses--you're setting yourself up for failure. A good consumer lawyer can help you identify the issues and defenses for your case and can also help you avoid some common mistakes that consumers make when they handle the answer themselves.