How do I Answer a Summons Letter?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A summons letter is a missive that is sent to a defendant in a legal case. It is usually sent as a notification of legal proceedings, and may include a date and time for a trial or meeting as well as details about the issue before the court. Depending on the type of summons letter received, it may be important to respond quickly. Answering a summons letter usually indicates that a defendant wishes to handle the matter in court, rather than submit to a default judgment.

If a defendant is unable to appear in court for a summons, he or she must file for a continuance in a timely manner.
If a defendant is unable to appear in court for a summons, he or she must file for a continuance in a timely manner.

There are many different types of situations in which a summons letter may be issued. If a person defaults on debt, such as credit card or student loan payments, he or she may be issued a summons letter. When a couple files for divorce, usually one spouse files the initial lawsuit while the other receives a summons. The appropriate way to respond to a summons letter will depend on the type of suit, the desired outcome, and the applicable laws.

One of the most important first steps needed to quickly answer a summons is to determine the statute of limitations on response. Most responses can only be filed for a certain period of time, often 30 days, after the summons is delivered. Allowing this period to lapse without a response may negate a defendant's chance to appear in court or file a countersuit. If a summons letter does not contain a response period date, the local court clerk may be able to locate this information.

Some experts suggest hiring a lawyer to help draft a response letter. Legal terminology can be somewhat complex and confusing, and a response letter may need to be carefully worded to ensure that what the defendant means to say is actually said correctly. In some cases, professional legal companies may also be able to provide form responses that take care of most of the wording.

In some cases, failure to respond to a summons may help build a case against the defendant. In the United States, the Internal Revenue Service has the right to summon citizens to meetings about impending proceedings with their taxes. Though not all IRS requests require a response, having documentation of compliance and fast response are important to establish the defendant's reputation as above board. An IRS summons will generally give the date and time of a meeting, as well as a list of documents required. To respond, it is important to acknowledge receipt of the letter and plans to attend the meeting. Failure to respond may be seen as non-compliance, and may be used against a defendant in court.

In some court proceedings, it is not necessary to respond to a summons letter. One common case is in an uncontested divorce. If a defendant responds to a divorce summons, this generally means that he or she has issue with the divorce plans and wants the judge to broker a different settlement. Not responding allows the judge to enter a default judgment, meaning that all divisions or responsibility and assets are pre-determined by the divorcing spouses and that there are no questions to be brought before the court. An uncontested divorce is generally a much faster and less expensive means of terminating a marriage; many legal experts recommend trying to solve divorce issues before filing so that a default judgment may be entered.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


My husband and I agreed to have an uncontested divorce and I did the filing and he has been served the summons, but he does not know what to do to sign that he agree to the divorce. He doesn't want to do what will make it look like is contested instead of an uncontested divorce.

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