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When Is It Too Late to Respond to a Lawsuit?

lawsuit form with attorney's hand and pen
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Most of us don't expect to get sued. So getting served with a complaint or other legal process documents can be a surprise. And once you read the complaint, your first thought is probably that the whole thing is baseless and doesn't even merit a response.

That can be a mistake.

As frivolous as a lawsuit may appear, not responding to one can have serious consequences. So, if you've been procrastinating on contacting a lawyer or filing a response to a lawsuit, you may want to do that ASAP.

Complaints and Answers

Most lawsuits follow a similar chronology. A civil action is generally commenced when a plaintiff files a Summons or Complaint in state or federal court and then those documents are delivered to the defendant. The exact start date can vary -- some jurisdictions start the clock from filing in court, others from the time the defendant is served with the lawsuit. While that means that some lawsuits can't begin until service occurs, it does not necessarily follow that a lawsuit ends if a defendant avoids process for long enough.

Once the lawsuit commences, however, the defendant must file an answer within a certain amount of time. The exact time frame to answer a complaint can also vary, but is generally about three weeks. The answer ostensibly lays out your defense:

  • What portions of the complaint, if any, you admit to;
  • What portions you contest;
  • What affirmative or legal defenses you may have; and
  • Whether you have any counterclaims against the Plaintiff, or any other party who may be involved.

You may even be able to have the matter dismissed completely with the right answer. So, when is to too late to file an answer to a lawsuit?

Answers and Time

As we noted above, the exact deadline can vary. It will largely depend on the jurisdiction in which the lawsuit is filed, and their rules of procedure. The time you have to answer can also depend on the type of lawsuit filed. If you miss that deadline, though, the court could enter a default judgment against you. That judgment can include money damages or an injunction that could be enforced through collections or liens on your property.

Before it gets to that point, contact an experienced, local attorney to assist you in your defense.

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