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North Carolina Small Claims Courts

North Carolina's small claims courts decide certain civil cases that do not exceed $10,000. North Carolina's laws make the small claims court process quick and inexpensive compared to cases in the district court. This allows many parties to a small claims case to pursue or defend against a claim without an attorney. However, parties may hire attorneys if they wish.

The following links provide information and self-help resources for parties involved in a small claims case:

This article provides information about North Carolina's small claims court process.

Small Claims Court Explained

North Carolina's small claims courts have limited jurisdiction, meaning they may only hear certain cases. Generally, the small claims court may only adjudicate claims involving money or the return of personal property. Specifically, the small claims court may hear the following types of claims, among others:

The small claims court cannot hear the following types of cases:

Claims in the small claims court may not exceed $10,000. If a plaintiff (the person or entity filing the lawsuit) claims between $10,000.01 and $25,000, they must file their case in the district court. If the claim exceeds $25,000, they must file it in the superior court.

A plaintiff does not have to file their case in the small claims court if their case does not exceed $10,000. Instead, they may file it in district court. However, the small claims court has fewer procedural requirements and typically resolves cases faster than the district court division.

magistrate decides small claims court cases in North Carolina. North Carolina's small claims courts do not have jury trials.

How To Begin a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff begins their small claims case by filing a complaint and a magistrate summons with the clerk of court at an appropriate county superior court. The specific form the plaintiff must file depends upon the plaintiff's claim type. For example, a landlord seeking to evict a tenant must use a different form than a plaintiff suing someone for money. The plaintiff may obtain the forms from the clerk's office or online.

The complaint states the following information:

  • All the plaintiffs
  • All the defendants (the people or entities whom the plaintiff sues)
  • The amount of money the plaintiff claims
  • A brief description of why the plaintiff believes the defendant is liable for the money owed or must return the plaintiff's personal property

The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee when they file their small claims lawsuit. If the plaintiff wins the case, the court may award these court costs to them. Indigent plaintiffs who cannot afford the filing fee may request a fee waiver by filing an affidavit of indigency with the court.

Where and When To File

The plaintiff must file their claim in the county where the defendant lives. If the plaintiff sues multiple defendants, they can file their case in any county where one defendant lives.

North Carolina law requires plaintiffs to file their small claims cases within a period of time called the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations varies depending on the type of claim. For example, plaintiffs must file a claim involving a contract dispute within three years of the date the cause of action arose. Failing to file the claim within the statute of limitations bars the court from deciding the case. Browse FindLaw's article on North Carolina's Civil Statute of Limitations Laws for more information.

Serving the Defendant

Once the plaintiff files their small claims case, they must serve notice of the case on every defendant. This process is called service of process. Serving the defendant involves ensuring they receive a copy of the complaint and magistrate summons.

Plaintiffs have several options to effect service on the defendant, including:

  • The plaintiff may request the sheriff's office to serve the defendants for them. Once law enforcement serves the defendant, they will file proof of service with the court. The sheriff's office will charge a service fee for each defendant it serves.
  • The plaintiff may send the documents to the defendant using registered or certified mail with a return receipt requested. The plaintiff must then write a statement indicating they followed the correct service procedure. They must then have a notary public notarize the statement. After that, the plaintiff must wait until the post office sends them a card indicating the defendant(s) received the certified mail. The plaintiff must then file the statement and the post office card with the court clerk.
  • If the plaintiff tries the above service options without success, they may try service by publication. This involves contacting a publication, such as a newspaper in the defendant's county, and paying for a section in the classifieds. This process is time-consuming and may result in delays in your case. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you have to serve a defendant using a publication.

In a non-landlord-tenant dispute, the defendant must receive notice at least five days before the hearing. In an eviction case, the defendant must receive notice at least two days before the hearing.

Failing to serve the defendant properly will prevent the court from hearing the case. Therefore, plaintiffs must familiarize themselves with the process of serving someone properly.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

If the defendant in a non-eviction case receives notice of the lawsuit within five days of the scheduled hearing, they may request that the magistrate schedule it for a later date. If the defendant in an eviction case receives notice of the lawsuit within two days of the hearing, they may do the same. A defendant may also appear at the small claims hearing and request another hearing at a later date.

A defendant does not need to file a formal answer to the complaint. Instead, they can wait to present their defense at the small claims court hearing.

If a defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. The counterclaim cannot exceed $10,000. To do so, the defendant must file an answer and counterclaim form with the court before the scheduled small claims trial. The defendant may file the answer and counterclaim on the day of the trial, but the court may delay the trial in that situation. The defendant must also serve the plaintiff with a copy of the form.

Before the Small Claims Hearing

The parties may gather evidence to prepare for their small claims hearing. This may include gathering relevant documents, contracts, photographs, and witnesses to testify at trial. If a witness does not want to attend the trial, a party may issue a subpoena to compel their attendance.

The parties may also try to settle their dispute before the trial. Parties may try to settle their differences on their own, or they can request professional help through mediation or arbitration. The court clerk can provide more information about alternative dispute resolution services. Alternatively, the Mediation Network of North Carolina provides mediation services throughout the state.

Parties that settle their dispute should inform the court of their settlement. They may also want to put their agreement in writing in case one party fails to uphold settlement obligations. Consider speaking to a civil litigation attorney near you before agreeing to settle your legal dispute.

The Small Claims Hearing

All parties to the lawsuit should plan to appear at their scheduled court date. If the plaintiff fails to appear, the court may dismiss the case. The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if the defendant fails to appear. This typically means the defendant must pay the plaintiff's requested amount or return the requested property.

The small claims court trial is typically quick (15 to 30 minutes) and informal. The trial will occur in the county where the plaintiff filed the small claims case.

At the start of the trial, the parties will take an oath to tell the truth. The plaintiff will present their arguments and evidence first. Once they finish, the defendant presents their side of the case.

A magistrate presides over the small claims hearing. They may take a more active role than a judge would in a district court case. For example, they may ask parties questions or for clarification.

Once the trial concludes, the magistrate will issue their judgment. They may issue it immediately or take up to 10 days to issue it.


If either party disagrees with the magistrate's judgment, they may appeal it. A district court will review the magistrate's judgment. Many counties require parties to attend mandatory arbitration before the district court reviews the small claims court proceeding.

The party wishing to appeal must file a Notice of Appeal to District Court form within 20 days of the judgment date (a 10-day period applies in an eviction case). The appealing party must serve the form on all parties to the lawsuit.

While the party appeals the case, they may generally stop the prevailing party from enforcing the judgment. The notice of appeal form contains information about stopping the enforcement of a judgment.

Enforcing a Judgment

If the court's judgment orders one party to pay money to another party, it is a money judgment. The person or entity that owes money is called the judgment debtor. The person or entity to whom money is owed is the judgment creditor.

The judgment creditor is responsible for enforcing the judgment. The court will not collect money or property.

The judgment debtor typically must pay the judgment creditor within 10 days of the judgment. The creditor and debtor may discuss how the debtor will make the payment or return the property. Once the debtor satisfies the judgment, the creditor must file a Certificate of Payment form with the court clerk. If the creditor fails to file the certificate within 60 days, the debtor may sue them.

Sometimes, a debtor may not satisfy the judgment within 10 days. In that case, the creditor may ask the court clerk to issue an execution. An execution allows the sheriff to demand payment from the debtor. If the debtor does not pay, the sheriff may seize certain property from the debtor, sell it, and give the money to the clerk. The clerk may then give the money to the creditor.

Contact an Attorney

If you are involved in a small claims case in North Carolina, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney for help. An experienced attorney near you can provide helpful legal advice about your case and the small claims process. Their help could mean the difference between winning and losing your case.

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