This section helps you figure out whether your case is right for small claims court and gives step-by-step instructions for starting a small claims case or responding to a case against you.

Is Small Claims Court Right for Your Case?

Small claims court is simple, informal, and inexpensive. Lawyers are allowed, but many people represent themselves.

In a small claims case, you can sue a person or business for up to $5,000. You give up the right to seek more than that for the claim if you choose small claims court. And you can’t split one claim into many cases in order to get around the $5,000 limit.

You can only sue for money in small claims court. That means you can't ask the judge to order the person you are suing to return property to you or let you have your job back--or do anything other than pay you. Small claims court is not the right court if:

  • You want to sue for more than $5,000
  • You want to sue for something other than money
  • Your case is very complicated
  • You want a jury trial

If any of these apply, you should file your case in the civil division of the superior court.

You must be at least 18 years old to sue in small claims court. If you are under 18 or have a guardian, your parent or guardian can sue for you. You can’t sue for someone else. For example, if both you and your spouse want to sue someone, both of you have to sign all the court papers and come to the hearing.Businesses may also use small claims court.

The court can’t guarantee that you will be paid if you win a small claims case. For more information about getting paid if you win your case, see Collecting a Small Claims Judgement.

Suing in Small Claims Court (for Plaintiffs)

The person filing the small claims case is called the plaintiff. So if you are suing someone in small claims court, you are the plaintiff. The person who is being sued is called the defendant.

Where to File a Small Claims Case

You may file the case in the county where you live or where the defendant lives. You should file your case in the Civil Division of the superior court in that county. You can find the court online.

Starting a Small Claims Case

Step 1: Fill Out the Complaint Form

To get started, you need to fill out a form called a complaint. You can either use:

  • The court’s Small Claims Complaint form (includes information and instructions for plaintiff)
  • The online interview tool CourtFormPrep. CourtFormPrep asks you questions and fills out the appropriate forms for you. Once the online interview is complete, you will need to print out the forms you created and sign them before filing them with the court.

Using either option, you should give enough information about your claims for the defendant and the judge to know what you are talking about. For example, if you are suing your landlord to get back a security deposit, write that you rented an apartment from the defendant, paid a security deposit at that time, and the defendant has refused to return it to you. Include all important dates. Fill in the amount owed to you.

If you attach any documents to the complaint, these are considered part of the complaint.

Remember to keep a copy of your complaint and any attachments that you file.

Step 2: File Your Complaint with the Court and Pay the Filing Fee

Filing Your Complaint

“Filing” means giving your documents to the court. To file your complaint, send the court:

  • Two copies of the complaint with any attachments
  • A filing fee
  • A self-addressed stamped envelope with enough postage for the court to return your documents. This is important. Unless you have signed up to get documents from the court by email, the court will use the envelope to send back to you a signed summons and your complaint and attachments. You need these to take the next step. If your complaint and attachments are more than a few pages, you will need to put more than one stamp on the return envelope. If you fail to provide sufficient postage, your complaint will not be considered filed.

You can choose to get documents from the court by email instead of regular mail. To do that, you must register your email addresses online. You will get an email with your electronic registration number (ERN). You can use this ERN for any cases you file--you do not need to sign up again if you have other cases. If you list your ERN in the blank on the complaint form, you don't have to file a stamped self-addressed envelope. The court will send you the summons and other documents by email.

If you are filing in Addison, Orange, Rutland, or Windsor County, you can choose to e-file, meaning file your case with the court electronically. If you want to do that, you must first register your email address with the court. For help registering and e-filing your case, you can:

Filing Fees

When you file your complaint with the court, you will need to include a filing fee. If you win your case, your filing fee will be added to your judgment.

If your income is low, you may qualify to file your complaint without a filing fee. You can file an Application to Waive Filing Fees with the court. The clerk will decide if you qualify for the fee waiver based on the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

If your address or phone number changes after you file a complaint, please notify the court in writing. If you change addresses without telling the court, you may not get notice about what is happening in your case.

Step 3: Mail the Summons, Complaint, and Other Forms to the Defendant

Once the court gets your documents and filing fee, it will send you back a signed summons with your complaint. The court will send this by email if you registered your email address or by regular mail if you did not.The complaint will include a docket number. You must use this docket number any time you contact the court about your case.

Once you get the packet from the court, you have seven days to send the defendant certain documents by first-class mail:

Keep track of the date when you mailed the complaint to the defendant. You will use this date to set certain deadlines.

The Certificate of Service shows the date you mailed the documents. You should send a copy to the defendant and the court. This is how you tell the court that you have served the defendant by mailing all of the documents to the defendant. Keep a copy of the completed Certificate of Service for your records.

If the defendant does not file an answer within 30 days, then you should move on to Step 4. It is up to you to keep track of the dates.

Step 4: If Defendant Does Not Answer Within 30 Days, Have the Sheriff Serve the Papers

If the defendant files an answer within 30 days, you can skip this step. But if the defendant doesn't file an answer within 30 days from the date you mailed the complaint and other papers, you must have a sheriff or constable serve the documents. ("Sheriff" in this section means either a sheriff or a constable.)

It is your job to keep track of the 30 days from the date you mailed the complaint and for arranging to have the sheriff serve the papers on the defendant.

You will save money by working with the sheriff located near the defendant. You can find the contact information for every sheriff in the state online. There is no online list of contact information for all of the constables in Vermont.

If you want to mail the documents to the sheriff, call the sheriff in advance to find out how to do that. Each sheriff has their own process. You can also personally take the documents to the sheriff. Make sure the sheriff gets the following:

The cost will depend in part on how many miles the sheriff drives and how many tries the sheriff makes before finding and serving the defendant. The sheriff may ask for a deposit to cover the fee. If you have to pay a sheriff to serve the defendant and then win your case, the court may order the defendant to repay you.

Once the sheriff serves the documents on the defendant, the sheriff's office will send you a fee and a return of service listing the documents the sheriff served. The Return of Service form must be filed with the court within 60 days from the date that you first mailed the summons and complaint to the defendant or the court may dismiss your case. It is your job to keep track of the dates. If the 60-day deadline is near and you have not received a return of service from the sheriff, you should contact the sheriff. If you need to, you can ask the court for an extension of the time to file the return of service. Send the court a letter explaining why you need more time. Make sure you write the docket number of the case on your letter.

If the defendant does not live in Vermont, then you need to have the defendant served using the process described in Vermont Rule 4(e) of the Vermont Rules of Civil Procedure (Click the link, scroll down to “Court Rules” and then “Rules of Civil Procedure,” click on “Commencement of Action,” then click “Rule 4.”)

Now you have started your case.

What Happens After the Defendant Answers

After the defendant has been served, the defendant has 30 days to answer your complaint.

If the defendant answers, agrees that they owe the money, and agrees to pay it all at once, the court will issue a judgment order. There will not be a hearing.

If the defendant answers, agrees that they owe the money, and proposes a plan to make partial payments over time, the court will issue a judgment to be paid in installments. If you object to the order, you should file a written objection with the court. The court will then schedule a hearing about whether to allow installment payments and, if so, in what amount.

If the defendant answers and disputes the claim, the court will schedule a hearing and mail both parties a notice of hearing. The hearing schedule varies from court to court; you may not receive a notice right away.

At any time during this process, you (or your lawyer) may contact the defendant (or the defendant's lawyer), or the defendant (or a lawyer representing the defendant) may contact you to try to settle the case out of court. Some people who don't have lawyers feel uncomfortable negotiating with a lawyer. The decision whether to hire a lawyer is a personal one that only you can make. If you choose not to hire a lawyer, you should feel free to negotiate with the other party’s lawyer just as you would with the other party.

Settlement can save both parties the time, hassle, risk, and cost of a court hearing. Use your own judgment in negotiating a settlement. If you do settle out of court, you should notify the court clerk right away. The settlement agreement should be in writing, signed by both parties, and filed with the court. The judge will decide whether to turn the agreement into a court order or whether to schedule a hearing.

If the Defendant Does Not Answer

If the defendant does not answer within 30 days after being served by a sheriff, you must take certain steps within 60 days of the date the answer was due. If you do not take these actions, the court may dismiss your case.

If after you take these steps the defendant still does not respond, the judge will decide whether you have provided sufficient evidence to issue a judgment in your favor. (A judgment is a court order that decides part or all of a case.) This is known as a default judgment.

If the judge issues a default judgment in your favor, it is your responsibility to send a copy to the defendant. You may wish to have it served by the sheriff. If the defendant does not pay, you will need to show that they knew about the judgment if you want to take steps to enforce it.

Being Sued in Small Claims Court (for Defendants)

If someone sues you, you are a defendant. The person who sues you is the plaintiff.

If you get a summons and complaint from the plaintiff by mail, you should file an answer within 30 days of the date it was mailed. If you do not, the plaintiff may have to pay a sheriff or constable to serve you. The court may then make you repay the plaintiff for those costs if the plaintiff wins the case. You can avoid that possibility by filing an answer in time.

If a sheriff or constable serves you with a summons and complaint, you should file an answer within 30 days of the date you were served. If you do not, the judge could decide that the plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence against you, and the court could issue a default judgment.

The documents you receive should include

You have three ways to fill out the answer form:

  • Write your answers in the form the plaintiff sent you
  • Use the fillable answer form available online
  • Use the online interview tool CourtFormPrep. This tool asks you questions and fills out the right forms for you. Once the online interview is done, you will need to print out the forms you created.

You should file your original answer directly with the court and send a copy to the plaintiff. Don’t forget to keep a copy for yourself. You also need to file a certificate of service with the court saying that you sent a copy to the plaintiff.

The answer form gives you several options:

  • If you agree that you owe the money, check the “Agree” box. Then, check one of the boxes under the “Agree” box:
    • If you agree that you owe the money, but you cannot pay it all at once, check the box that asks for an installment judgment. Tell the court and the plaintiff how much you can pay, as well as the pay period and start date for any payments (for example, $50 per month beginning the next month). This payment schedule must be reasonable, and the court has to approve it. If the court approves the schedule but the plaintiff objects to it, the court will hold a hearing.
    • If you agree to pay the debt, you must also pay the plaintiff for the filing fee and any sheriff’s costs.
    • You should pay the plaintiff directly and keep good records of your payments.
  • If you believe you do not owe the plaintiff part or all of the money that you are being sued for, check the “Disagree” box on the answer form. In the blanks briefly describe the reasons why you do not agree that you owe the money. The court will schedule a hearing. The hearing schedule varies from court to court; you may not receive a notice right away. At the hearing the plaintiff will have to prove you owe the money.
  • Even if you owe plaintiff money, some of your income may be protected against collection by the plaintiff. This is called "exempt" income. It is listed in the List of Exemptions. Whether you agree or not, if you think that some or all of your income may be exempt from collection, you should check that box and send a Disclosure of Exempt Income form to the court. This is not a defense and does not mean you will not get a judgment against you. It does let the plaintiff know that they may not be able to collect the money from you even if the judge decides in their favor.
  • If you think the plaintiff owes you money, you should check the box that says “I Have a Counterclaim Against Plaintiff” on the answer form and explain your claim. A counterclaim is a legal claim by the defendant against the plaintiff in an existing case. It means you are suing the plaintiff. If you claim that the plaintiff owes you more than $5,000, you may want to talk to a lawyer about whether you should make that claim in the small claims court or in regular court. If you choose to sue in small claims court, you give up your right to any amounts over $5,000.
    • If you file a counterclaim, you will have to pay a filing fee
    • If your income is low, you may be able to file your counterclaim without a filing fee. You can file an Application to Waive Filing Fees with the court. The clerk will decide if you qualify for the fee waiver based on the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

If your address or phone number changes after you file your answer to a complaint, please notify the court in writing. If you change addresses without telling the court, you may not get notice about what is happening in your case.