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What Does a Debt Collector Have to Prove in Court?

Sarah Edwards | November 07, 2022

A debt collector can only win the case if they prove the debt is valid.

Summary: A creditor is the company or organization that originally owns your debt, while a debt collector is someone who collects the debt on their behalf or purchases the debt account from the creditor. In order to win a court case, a debt collector must prove that they have proper ownership of the debt, that you actually owe the debt, and that the amount they claim you owe is correct.

Have you recently been sued by a debt collector? If so, you’re likely wondering what your options are.

You can pay the debt or arrange a payment plan before your court date, attempt to defend yourself before the judge, or avoid the issue entirely and let the chips fall where they may.

Many try to pay off or settle the debt before the court date, but it’s not a viable option if you don’t have the money available. If you avoid responding to the lawsuit, the judge will likely grant a default judgment to your creditor.

The judgment will allow your creditor to garnish your wages or pursue the money in other ways, like freezing your bank account.

While judgments no longer appear on your credit report, they impact your life. An employer or creditor who runs a more intensive background check on you will likely come across your judgment since it appears in public records. If this happens, they may be less likely to hire you or approve you for a loan.

The final option to deal with a lawsuit for debt is to defend yourself in court.

Going to court to argue against a creditor may sound fruitless, especially if you know you owe the money. However, if you put the appropriate effort into defending yourself, you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

What happens after a creditor or debt collector sues me?

You’ll receive a court Summons and Complaint (also known as Petition in some states) if a creditor or debt collector decides to sue you. These are the court documents that initiate a lawsuit. They may come in the mail, or a court officer may deliver it to your door. Once you receive the Summons and Complaint, you’ll have around 14-35 days to respond, depending on where you live. Your response is necessary if you intend to argue against your creditor.

In your response, list your reasons why the court should rule in your favor. Each reason is a defense in your case.

For instance, you may argue that the statute of limitations has passed or that you were the victim of identity theft. Other potential defenses include the lack of a business relationship between you and the debt collector or proof that you have already satisfied the debt through other means.

SoloSuit can help you draft and file an Answer to a lawsuit in a matter of minutes. Learn more about how to respond to a debt lawsuit in this video:

Will the court review my response?

Yes, the court and the opposing side will have a chance to view your response before the trial.

Once the creditor or debt collector has your response, they will likely prepare their defense against it. However, if your defense is adequate, they may move to dismiss the case or come to a settlement agreement with you.

There are three potential outcomes to your lawsuit, should you decide to defend it. The court may find your defense lacking and decide to issue a judgment against you, your creditor may attempt to settle the matter with you privately, or the court may dismiss your case.

There is a difference between a creditor and debt collector

It’s important to understand the difference between your original creditor and a debt collector. The creditor is the company or agency that offered you the original loan or line of credit. This could be a bank, credit card company, lender, etc. So, your creditor owns your debt from the beginning.

On the other hand, a debt collector is usually hired by a creditor to collect the debt on their behalf. This could be a third-party debt collection agency or some creditors have internal collections departments.

Keep in mind that some debt collectors are also debt buyers. They may have purchased an old debt of yours from your creditor at a discounted rate, and now they’re trying to get you to pay off the full amount.

What does the creditor have to prove in a debt lawsuit?

A creditor must prove three basic facts in court to win their case. These facts include:

  1. The creditor owns your debt.
  2. You are the individual who owes the debt.
  3. The amount you owe is accurate.

The burden of proof of all three facts rests with the plaintiff who sues you—or in this case, your creditor.

What does a debt collector have to prove in court?

Similarly, a debt collector must prove the following facts to win their case in court:

  1. The debt collection agency owns your debt and has the legal right to sue.
  2. You owe the debt.
  3. The amount they claim you owe is accurate.

If the debt collector purchased your old debt account from your creditor, they must show proof that the account was properly transferred to their ownership, giving them the legal right to sue for it.

How do debt collectors show proof of ownership of my debt?

An original creditor will produce the credit agreement you initially signed to prove ownership. For example, a credit card lender may provide your initial credit application and acceptance of the loan.

Things get dicier when the original creditor has sold the loan to a debt collection agency. If the debt collector sues you, they must prove that they purchased your debt from your creditor. Generally, they do so by providing a copy of the purchase agreement.

If the debt collection agency resells your account to another debt collector, the chain of ownership grows. The final debt collector who decides to sue you for a debt must produce evidence of all debt repurchases.

As you can imagine, new debt collectors may have difficulty proving they own your debt, especially if various companies have transferred it throughout the years.

How can a creditor establish that I owe the debt?

Establishing that you are the individual who owes the debt is another objective the debt collector or creditor must overcome.

It’s generally easier for first-party creditors to prove you owe a debt. They simply produce the original credit agreement that shows your name and identifying information, like your address and Social Security number.

However, when a first-party creditor sells your account to a debt collection agency, it’s easy for personal information to get lost in the shuffle. Debt collection agencies often purchase thousands of overdue accounts at once. During the purchase, they may mix up account details or receive information from the original creditor that isn’t accurate.

If your account transfers hands multiple times, essential information like your account number and contact details may be lost. Mixed-up account information works in your favor, as the debt collector won’t be able to prove the debt is yours.

You may also have an adequate defense to your lawsuit if someone stole your identity to create the account or if the account belongs to another family member and you were simply an authorized user.

Can a debt collector prove that the amount I owe is accurate?

In a debt lawsuit, the creditor must prove the accuracy of the amount due to them. Previous account statements and complete sets of monthly bills help establish a full accounting of your debts.

Suppose that a debt collector purchases your account from a first-party creditor. In that case, they will need to identify any new charges for interest or processing that they have added to the amount you owe.

When you receive notification of a debt lawsuit, you should ask for an immediate accounting of the amount the plaintiff is suing you for. If you note any mistakes in the amount due, you can record them for your defense.

Is my defense likely to be successful?

Whatever reasons you decide to use in your defense, make sure you can prove them. Your ability to successfully defend yourself in a debt lawsuit will rest upon the validity of your claims and the evidence you present.

If you use defenses you can’t prove, a judge will likely see through them. If they believe your claims are without merit, they’ll probably issue a judgment against you.

The more evidence you can provide to support your claims, the better.

For instance, if you claim the statute of limitations expired, provide copies of the last transaction in the account. If you believe you are the victim of identity theft, file a complaint with the FTC and your local authorities.

If you have previously settled the debt, produce copies of your receipts or a canceled check.

The more information a judge has concerning your defense, the more likely they will decide the case in your favor.

Can I settle a debt before it goes to court?

Yes, settling a debt before going to court is entirely possible. To do so, simply contact the plaintiff before the court date and attempt to work out a payment plan or a payoff amount.

When you contact the entity suing you, let them know you are willing to work out a payment arrangement to avoid going to court. Frequently, debt collectors prefer to work out their claims with debtors instead of proceeding with a court case.

Going to court requires collectors to take time away from their regular duties to meet with a judge. The outcome of a court case isn’t guaranteed; they may show up only to find that a judge dismisses their case or issues a finding on your behalf.

On top of that, many debt collectors are debt buyers who purchased your debt for as little as 4% of its original amount. This means that, if you offer to pay off even just 50% of the debt amount, the collector will still make a huge profit. Therefore, debt collectors are usually willing to settle for less.

If you attempt to settle your debt without going to court, make sure you have your defenses ready. Explain why the defense applies to your case.

It’s helpful to get someone on the phone with authority to decide on your offer. Otherwise, you may spend time explaining the situation to someone whose responsibilities mainly concern customer service.

Before offering to settle the debt, make sure you have an amount in mind that you can afford to pay. If the creditor accepts your offer, you’ll likely need to pay the amount on the spot.

Suppose that you don’t have the financial means to make a lump-sum payment. Try to negotiate a payment plan. Sometimes creditors and debt collectors will agree to a payment plan rather than going to court for a judgment, especially if they believe collecting money from you all at once will be difficult.

Start the settlement process by sending a Debt Lawsuit Settlement Letter.

To learn more about how to reach a settlement with your creditor or debt collector, check out this video:

What happens if a creditor refuses to settle before court?

If your creditor doesn’t want to accept a settlement or payment plan, you’ll need to move forward with defending yourself before the judge. Make sure to gather all evidence for your defense and be prepared to answer questions in court.

In most cases, you can defend yourself in a small claims debt lawsuit on your own. However, if your case involves significant amounts of money, you may be better off seeking the assistance of a qualified attorney.

What is SoloSuit?

SoloSuit makes it easy to fight debt collectors.

You can use SoloSuit to respond to a debt lawsuit, to send letters to collectors, and even to settle a debt.

SoloSuit's Answer service is a step-by-step web-app that asks you all the necessary questions to complete your Answer. Upon completion, we'll have an attorney review your document and we'll file it for you.

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