Small claims court is an easier way to take someone to court who you think owes you money.
Small claims basics
In small claims court, you can sue a person, business or government agency that you think owes you money. In general, you can only sue for up to $10,000 in small claims court but there are exceptions.
Small claims is a cheaper and faster process to sue someone. In general, you can only sue for up to $10,000 in small claims court. If you're a business, you can only sue for up to $5,000 (unless you're a sole proprietor, which are treated like a person and can sue for up to $10,000). If you are suing for COVID-19 rental debt, there is no $10,000 limit.
The fee to file a small claims is between $30 - $100, depending on how much you are suing for. And if you can't afford the fee, you can ask for a fee waiver. Once you file your papers to start your case, the court date (or trial) is usually in 1-2 months.
Some things you should know before you sue in small claims court:
- You can't have a lawyer represent you in court (but you can ask a lawyer for advice about the case).
- You have to collect the money if you win your case. The court does not do it for you.
- If you start the case (if you're the plaintiff), you can't appeal if you lose. The judge's decision is final. You can appeal if you are sued, or the other side sues you back and you lose.
If small claims is not right for you, you can file a case in civil court. That process is a lot more complicated and expensive, and you may need a lawyer to help you.
Special rules for COVID-19 rental debt in small claims cases
In a case related to COVID-19 rental debt, there is no $10,000 limit. Click to learn more if you're a landlord wanting information on the small claims COVID-19 rental debt process. And, if you're a tenant, click for more information if your landlord has filed a small claims case for COVID-19 rental debt.
What to know before you file a small claims case
There is a lot to consider before you decide to sue someone in small claims court.
- How much money to ask for
- What is your legal reason for why you're owed money
- Who to sue and where they are
- Which county you can sue in
- What is your proof that you're owed money
- What is the deadline to sue (called the statute of limitations)
- If you win, will you be able to collect the money from the other person
To learn about how to think about all of these questions and more, read about the small claims process on the California Court's Online Self-Help Guide.
How to sue someone in small claims court
Once you decide you want to sue someone in small claims court, you will have to fill out forms, file them, give a copy to the other side in the proper legal way, and more.
Check out our Small Claims - Suing Someone Flowchart to see all the steps you have to follow, links to forms, and info. Or contact the Self-Help Center for help.
If you are ready to fill out and file your forms, you can use a computer program to fill out your forms online. If you want, this program will also help you e-file your forms.
What to do if you are sued in small claims court
If someone has filed a small claims case against you, you will have to go to court on your trial date if you want the judge to hear your side of the story.
Click to find information about what the papers you received mean, and what do to, on the California Courts Online Self-Help Guide.
You can also check out our Small Claims - Being Sued Flowchart to see all the steps you have to follow, links to forms, and info. Or contact the Self-Help Center for help.
What happens after the trial
After the judge makes a decision in a small claims case, there are different things that can happen:
- The defendant (the person sued) can appeal if they lose. The plaintiff can only appeal if the defendant sued back and won.
- The person who lost pays or asks for a payment plan.
- If the one who lost doesn't pay voluntarily, the person who won has to collect the money.
- If one of you didn't go to the trial and lost, you may be able to ask the judge to cancel the decision and give you a new trial.
If you win, collecting on a small claims judgment can be very hard if someone won't pay on their own. You can try to garnish their wages, take the money from their bank account, put a lien on their home, and more. You can also have the judge order them to return to court and answer questions about their job, any other income, bank accounts, and everything of value they might own.
If you lose and don't pay, you will owe 10% interest rate per year on any amount you owe. The other side can take money from your wages or bank accounts, or take other things you own. The judgment against you may show up on your credit report too.
Click to find out what happens after the trial and what you can do if you won or lost your case.