Summons: I define it as a court document that brings you under the jurisdiction of a court of competent jurisdiction.
It starts a lawsuit. It gives a judge jurisdiction over you. If you ignore it for too long, the judge won’t call you like those pesky creditors; he or she will have you placed in custody.
In these tough economic times, a significant percentage of people have to choose whether to pay their mortgage over their credit card bills, or their car payment over an invoice.
If you do not pay a creditor for long enough, you start to receive those pesky calls early in the morning, late at night and sometimes at work. They threaten you with lawsuits and sometimes are just plain rude.
A few people I know learn to recognize the creditors’ phone numbers and ignore them. They throw away the mail. They may go months or even years with a bill not being paid and hope that the creditor will simply charge off the debt, ruin their credit, and just go away.
Then a sheriff or a process server comes to their house or work, and says, “You have been served, please sign here.”
They look at the paperwork. About a third of the way down on the first page, there in bold and all capital letters, “SUMMONS.”
The plaintiff is a bank or credit card company and they figure that this is just another attempt by the creditor to annoy them again. So they place the summons and the attached paperwork in a place where they can forget about it until finances get better. Then, they don’t receive anything else for months and figure they once again thwarted the creditor.
Then, one day, one of the following happens: (1) Their bank account is frozen; (2) the sheriff comes into their house with a document that authorizes him or her to take their television and valuables; (3) their pay check is drastically cut and being sent somewhere else; or (4) and worst of all, they are arrested and brought before a judge.
Here is what happened behind the scenes because they chose to ignore the word SUMMONS: They did not answer the lawsuit within the specified time or did not show up to court when they were required to. The court eventually entered a judgment against them without hearing their side, and now it is a matter of public record. Since they have a judgment against them, the creditor now has a whole bunch of new methods to harass them, rather hurt their financial position, other than phone calls and letters.
Why are some debtors arrested? It is not because of the debt itself. Rather, it is because they didn’t know that 45 days after the judge ruled against them without their knowledge, they had to disclose their entire financial situation to help the creditor (now the plaintiff) figure out how to take all of their belongings, money and bank accounts and garnish their hard-earned wages.
In most situations where a client who is a debtor comes in after a judgment is entered, there is very little I can do to help. If the client comes to me when he or she first received the summons, I can usually structure a settlement or even fight the case.
Don’t think this applies to too many people? On any given day, the small claims division of a courthouse will have perhaps 20 or more cases, and most of the time the debtor/defendant does not show up. I have been to court during these sessions in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Pasco, Manatee and Hernando and it seems to me that so many debtors just simply treat the summons the same way as a creditor phone call.
So, let us now redefine my definition of summons from “a court document that brings you under the jurisdiction of a court of competent jurisdiction” to “a document THAT YOU MUST PAY ATTENTION TO THAT DAY.”
If the creditor is willing to spend the money to file the lawsuit, bet your hard-earned dollar the creditor will use the judgment to collect eventually.