In most jurisdictions, a civil lawsuit begins by the plaintiff, or person filing the lawsuit, filing a summons and complaint with the appropriate court. Both the summons and complaint are then served on the defendant by an approved method of service. The defendant must then answer the summons and complaint or risk a default judgment being entered against him or her. An answer must be in writing and filed with the court and the defendant within the statutory time frame allotted in the summons. The answer must address each allegation in the complaint and must contain any affirmative defenses.
A complaint is the legal document prepared and filed by a plaintiff which sets out the allegations that form the basis of the lawsuit against the defendant. Rules may vary among jurisdictions, but, in most cases, the complaint must include all the grounds on which the lawsuit is predicated, as well as general background information. The complaint must also tell the court what relief the plaintiff is seeking, such as a monetary judgment, a judgment for divorce, or a determination of paternity.
The summons is a document prepared along with the complaint. The summons informs the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed, how long the defendant has to answer the complaint, and when the defendant must appear for court, if a court date has been scheduled. The summons and complaint are then served on the defendant. Jurisdictions differ with regard to what methods of service are allowable; however, most courts allow service by a civil sheriff or process server, service by registered or certified mail, or service by publication if the whereabouts of the defendant are unknown.
The defendant must file an official answer with the court within a specified period of time. Failure to file an answer may allow the plaintiff to ask the court for a default judgment. If the court grants the motion for default judgment, then the defendant loses the lawsuits without the opportunity to defend the lawsuit and the plaintiff may receive whatever relief he or she was asking for in the complaint.
The answer to the summons and complaint must address each and every allegation found in the complaint. The answers do not need to be specific in most jurisdictions. In the United States, most jurisdictions only require an answer of "agrees with," "denies," or "lacks sufficient information upon which to form an answer," or something similar. In addition to answering the allegations found in the complaint, an answer must assert any affirmative defenses the defendant has to the allegations. The answer must then be filed with the court and a copy served on the plaintiff.