Frequently Asked Questions
A small claims case is a simplified type of court case to recover money or personal property to satisfy a debt. A small claims action can only be filed for up to $10,000, exclusive of court costs and other related fees. If the claim is over $10,000, a small claims action can still be filed, but the right to collect the amount over $10,000 must be waived along with the right to a jury trial. The $10,000 figure does not include interest or court costs or other related fees, which can be added to the $10,000 amount.
It is always a good idea to pursue all available options before going to court. This is not only good policy, but you cannot file a small claims suit if you cannot provide proof that you have requested payment within a certain time period before filing the lawsuit. Often before filing a small claims action the entity owed money will enter into a payment agreement with a debtor. A payment agreement is certainly cheaper than filing a small claims action, but only works as long as the debtor continues to make the scheduled payments. It is therefore a good idea to also have the debtor sign a document called a "Confession of Judgment," which can be used in a Small Claims action to collect money. An attorney can help prepare a standard "Confession of Judgment" form.
As is the case with legal proceedings, there is some specialized language that is used in small claims actions. The most common terms that someone involved in a small claims action should be familiar with are:
A Small Claims Information Sheet is available from the Alaska Court system.
What needs to happen before filing a Small Claims case?
Before taking legal action make every effort possible to negotiate payment. Before you can file with the court, you have to have asked for payment of the money owed and provided a payment due date, and the request has to have been made at least 15 days before the small claims action is started. Be sure to have all the correct information on the defendant, such as:
Have the background information organized and available to attach with the court forms.
How do I file a Small Claims case?
Begin by getting a copy of the Alaska Small Claims Handbook from the court, which explains the small claims process.Next, determine where it is that you will file the claim. (There are rules about filing in a location that will not cause unnecessary expense or inconvenience to the defendant that must be followed.)
The court system provides the forms for both the plaintiff and defendant in a small claims action. (At a minimum if the defendant agrees with the complaint these forms are the: complaint, notice that complaint was served, summons, answer, judgment, and satisfaction of judgment.) There are also filing fees and postage charges that are explained in the court's handbook.
The plaintiff fills out the complaint, summons, and answer forms as explained in the handbook and gives them to the court along with any attachments. Unless using a process server, the plaintiff provides the court a postage-paid addressed envelope and the court's mailing charge and the court takes care of the mailing - see the court's mailing information sheet for additional information.
What should we do about a person who keeps breaking payment agreements?
Unfortunately, you cannot collect on a broken payment agreement without filing a court action. One way to save time and expense especially with a debtor who has broken a previous payment agreement is to require the debtor, as a condition for another payment agreement, to also sign a "Confession of Judgment." A Confession of Judgment is a legal document that can be filed with a small claims complaint that says the defendant agrees the money is owed and that the court can enter judgment. Upon receipt of the Confession of Judgment the judge can enter a judgment without waiting for the defendant to file an Answer. This speeds up the collection process. The defendant and a representative of the local government should sign the Confession in front of a notary public or other person authorized to witness a signature. An attorney can help prepare the confession of judgment.
What if a person owes money on several different accounts?
The Complaint in a Small Claims case should include the defendant's entire debt owing to the local government. For example, if a person is behind on water payments and owes harbor fees the Complaint should combine both debts. For this reason it is important to keep track of all the money an individual owes to the local government so that action can be taken before the total debt exceeds the $10,000 limit for a small claims action.
Where do I get the forms for filing a small claims case?
Small claims forms and the Small Claims Handbook are available at all Alaska court locations. Some small claims forms are available on the court system's website. If you are not able to get the forms from the website or go to the courthouse and pick up the forms and Small Claims Handbook, you may request that they be mailed to you. Following is a list of forms:
Does a local government need an attorney if it is sued in Small Claims Court?
A local government that is being sued in Small Claims Court does not have to be represented by an attorney in court; however, it is a good idea to have an attorney review the small claims complaint especially if the case is not routine, witnesses need to be called, and/or the entity being sued has little experience with lawsuits. In some cases it may be in the local government's best interest to ask to move the case from Small Claims Court to the Alaska District Court. If the suit is moved to the Alaska District Court, both parties must use an attorney.
Other officials with written authorization can represent the local government in small claims court; however, the advice of an attorney and sometimes representation by an attorney is a good idea.
What is the Sequence of Events in a Small Claims Case?
If the debtor does not pay by the date specified in the request for payment, gather together the relevant information, which in a small claims case is:
After ensuring that all the information is accurate and current, the plaintiff prepares the Small Claims Complaint following the instructions in the Small Claims Handbook and files it with the court with the appropriate fees. The person being sued (defendant) has to either file an answer to the complaint, pay the money owed, or request that the case not be handled under Small Claims Rules (both parties have to agree to have the case decided under small claims rules). If the defendant does not answer the complaint within 20 days or pay the money the court issues a default judgment. See the Small Claims Information Sheet for more information.
A small claims action does not always go to trial, but can if the defendant denies the complaint. If the action goes to trial a date is set for a judge to review the complaint and evidence and hear testimony before deciding the issue.
What is a default judgment?
A default judgment can occur if the defendant does not file an Answer to the Small Claims Complaint within 20 days of receiving it. Once the Complaint has been served on the Defendant the court will notify the plaintiff of the date of service. Mark the date of service on a calendar and count forward twenty days and mark this date for a response from the defendant. If no Answer is received by the twentieth day, immediately file an Affidavit of Default and Request for Judgment (Form SC-8). Too often a plaintiff fails to file for a Default Judgment and cases drag on. Once an Affidavit of Default and Request for Judgment has been filed, the judge can award the judgment without an Answer from the defendant and the case is over. In order to prevent a Default Judgment, a defendant must provide a very good explanation of why the Answer wasn't filed on time to avoid the consequences of default.
How do we collect the money once the court awards the judgment?
There are a few ways to collect the money. Ideally, the debtor pays the amount in full once the case is decided and a judgment is awarded. If the debtor is not able to pay the whole amount right away, an agreement can be filed with the court to pay the debt in installments (if this happens, the creditor cannot take action to seize other property unless the debtor fails to pay); or the creditor can file a lien on the debtor's assets or permanent fund dividend check (PFD) (the court has separate forms and instructions that apply to a PFD lien - see "Booklet CIV-503"). There is a certain window of time (April 1 through September 15) within which to file a lien on a PFD in order for it to attach to the current year dividend.
Once the debt is paid, you must give the debtor an "Acknowledgement of Satisfaction of Judgment." These forms are also available from the court.
What should we do if the defendant wants to settle after the case has been filed?
Do not dismiss the case unless some action occurs to ensure payment of the money owed. Once the case has been filed the plaintiff should not drop or dismiss the case without payment in full (including all the costs of filing the small claims action), or without an agreement approved by the court that has been made a part of the judgment against the defendant. It is costly and time consuming to file a small claims action and you only want to do it once. The judgment you have against a defendant is the best guarantee of payment. If a defendant doesn't pay according to the judgment, the plaintiff can take action to collect, such as filing a lien on a PFD or garnishing wages.
The most common reason a local government files a small claims action is to collect on overdue utility bills, sales taxes, building rentals, or equipment leases. Small claims procedure may not be used for any of the following:
Some local governments follow a policy of requiring specific authorization from the governing body to pursue any small claims action. Another policy is to include in each ordinance that requires payments a provision that the creditor will submit all delinquent bills to a collection agent, small claims court, or other collection process. In this way, the administration can follow the collection policy set by the governing body on a consistent basis and regardless of political or personal relationships of the parties involved.
The creditor should treat all customers the same as far as collecting debt. Some local governments set a time limit for overdue bills and some use the amount overdue to determine when an account goes to small claims. Ordinances can also include a provision that customers may be charged the costs of collection.
Alaska Court System
Alaska Statutes (See Current Alaska Statutes)
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