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How Do I Answer a Summons?

A defendant has 21 days to file a response after a plaintiff files a summons and complaint in court.
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  • Written By: Renee Booker
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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When a complaint is filed with a court initiating a lawsuit, a summons is generally filed along with the complaint. The purpose of the summons is to notify the defendant that the lawsuit has been filed and to explain what the defendant must do to respond to the lawsuit. The summons may also include a date and time that the defendant must appear in court. In order to preserve his or her rights to defend the lawsuit, the defendant must answer a summons within the time frame allotted under the laws of the jurisdiction where the lawsuit was filed.

Technically, the defendant must answer the complaint, not the summons; however, many people refer to the process as answering the summons. There are two vital issues involved when a defendant needs to answer a summons. The first issue is whether or not a court appearance is required and the second is how long the defendant has to answer a summons. Careful attention must be paid to the summons in order to be sure the instructions are followed correctly.

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In order to answer a summons, the defendant must prepare a written answer to the complaint. The answer must contain an answer to each and every allegation contained in the complaint. As a rule, the defendant must agree with, deny, or claim a lack of information sufficient to form an opinion, with regard to each allegation. In addition, the answer must contain any affirmative defenses that the defendant has to the allegations contained in the complaint. Affirmative defenses vary by jurisdiction, but include things such as payment, contributory negligence, or fraud.

Once the defendant has prepared the written answer, it must be filed with the court within the allowable time frame. In addition, a copy must be officially served on the plaintiff. If the defendant fails to answer a summons in a timely fashion, the plaintiff may ask the court to enter a default judgment against the defendant. A default judgment basically gives the plaintiff what he or she was asking for in the complaint without the defendant having an opportunity to defend his or her position.

Aside from filing a written answer, the other important step when a person is required to answer a summons is to appear in court on the indicated date and time. Not all summonses require a court appearance; however, if the summons does require an appearance, then failure to appear could result in a warrant being issued for the defendant's arrest. If the defendant is unable to attend for any reason, a continuance should be filed with the court well ahead of time.

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