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Is it time to take them to court?

Thea Dudley


Dear Thea,
When should I use small claims court to collect our company’s money? Is this a better option than turning my delinquent accounts over to a collection agency? How hard is it to use small claims court as an option? Any insight you could give is appreciated.

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— Teeter-tottering in Tennessee

Dear Teeter-tot,

Don’t you just love a good Western? There is something exciting and unexpected about the Wild, Wild West. Since I can’t go back in time, small claims court is the next best thing.
Small claims court is my favorite. It is a trip to the airport, county fair, and a family reunion all in one. The level of crazy and entertainment is inspiring. Now that I have you feeling good about the prospect of a fun and entertaining workday, let’s set some guidelines to help you prepare you for small claims bonanza.

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1. Gather all supporting documents: credit application, invoices, statements, notes of conversations—basically, every scrap of data you can.

2. Make three copies. One for you, one for the judge and one for the deadbeat, also known as your former customer.

3. File all the paperwork, usually online, in the appropriate court. There will be a filing fee, so have your credit card ready.

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4. Get the debtor served—super easy. Some states let you do it, some use registered mail, sheriff, or a process server. There will be a fee whichever avenue you pick. My personal favorite is a self-serve or a well-timed sheriff visit (preferably to the home, at dinner time) but the office is just as entertaining. Either choice is delightfully impactful.

5. Show up on your court date. Assume you will get lost, so go early.

6. Once your case is called. Sit quietly and wait for the judge to ask you questions.

7. Answer honestly, and concisely. Provide the documentation when requested. Wrap it up as quickly and unemotionally as possible. Refrain from, “It all started when….” The judge doesn’t care.

8. Shut up. Let the judge ask the defendant questions. Do not jump in, make corrections, add an eye roll, make snorting or guffaw noises or body gestures of any type. This is usually where the deadbeat buries himself. Sit quietly and enjoy. Examine your shoes closely if you can’t contain a snicker.

9. Wait patiently. Keep it zipped. The judge will ask for clarification, additional documents, etc. as they desire them.

10. The judge usually rules immediately. Assuming you’ve won, don’t act like you just got the winning touchdown. There’s no finger pointing while yelling “Suck it Deadbeat!” Unfortunately, that’s frowned upon.

11. Once you have the judgement I recommend going immediately to the court clerk to have the judgment recorded.

12. Get ready for part two—the collection of said judgment. That’s another story.

Part of your prep work is to watch several episodes of “Judge Judy” or “The People’s Court.” It will tell you all you need to know on self-governing in court. Most people can’t keep themselves together long enough to survive it.

Now, if you can’t keep it together, and you have no internal candidates for this wild ride or it’s not geographically convenient for you to utilize small claims court, then don’t put yourself or anyone else on that horse. The likelihood of failure increases as your temperament changes. Collection agencies are a valuable alternative. Find one that works with your style, one that provides you with the communication that you need to feel comfortable with the process.

It may take a while. You must kiss a lot of frogs before you find “the one.”
Still teetering? I recommend riding into the Wild West at least once if you can. And while I love a good Western, I also enjoy a good romantic comedy where the credit manager finds the collection agency of her dreams, falls madly into collection heaven and they collect happily ever after.

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