DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is not required
Initial Filing Fee: $90 to $200
North Carolina seeks to reduce the burden on the court system and make the process less expensive by providing a small claims court. These courts hear cases with claims of $5,000 or less. Anything above that amount cannot be filed in a small claims court. Typically, these cases are about money or property that is owed to one person. All of these claims must be filed in the county where the defendant is located.
Step 1: Determine if Your Claim Qualifies as a “Small Claim”
In order to file a small claim in North Carolina, you must be at least 18 years old and “competent,” meaning you can legally speak for yourself. Any lawsuit for a claim that is equal to or less than $5,000 can be placed in a small claims court in every county. Typically, small claims court is used for money that is owed to you or property that should be returned to you. It can also be used to collect back rent for landlords, and to remove people from a rental property.
You cannot use small claims court for:
• Malicious prosecution
• Punitive damages
• Cases against the state or the government
• Cases against persons under the age of 18
You also cannot file a small claim on behalf of someone else.
Step 2: Determine Where to File Your Claim
Some states allow you to file a claim in your home county, but in North Carolina the claim must be filed where the defendant or the business in question is located. This means that even if there is an outpost for a business in one county, you must file it where the business is licensed with the state. It is very important that you file your complaint with the right county.
Step 3: File the Proper Complaint
There are three types of complaints you can file with the county for small claims. You can file a “Complaint for Money Owed,” a “Complaint to Recover Possession of Personal Property,” or a “Complaint in Summary Ejectment,” which means you can use it to kick somebody out. If you are suing for money, put the exact amount owed, then add interest for “total amount owed” on the form. You are going to have to provide proof and explain why this money is owed, so it is important that you are precise. A personal property complaint is also going to have a value associated with it, in case the property no longer exists or if it has been damaged. When you turn in your original form to the clerk of courts, you will also need to provide a copy for serving the defendant if you are going to use the sheriff, as well as a third copy for yourself.
You will have to make any and all payments at this time. Usually there is a filing fee and additional fees based on serving the defendant. These fees vary by county, but are usually around $96 for the court costs and $30 to serve the papers.
Step 4: Serve the Defendant
If you want the papers served in person, you can either have the sheriff do it for a small fee, or enlist a third party unrelated to the claim. You can also serve the defendant by registered mail; to do this you must write a statement, certified by a notary public, stating you have filed everything properly, and then file that statement with the clerk of courts. It is typically easier to have someone serve the paperwork. If you cannot find the defendant, you can serve them by publication, via a newspaper.
The defendant must be notified at least five days before the trial. It is not mandatory in North Carolina for the defendant to answer the summons, but they do have to appear in court. This means you have no way of knowing what they are going to present when they arrive in court. It is important that you prepare properly.
Step 5: Go to Trial
You will want to be as prepared as possible before you go to court. You should gather evidence regarding your claim, including:
• Canceled checks
You don’t want to overwhelm the court, but you do want to convince the court you are owed the property or the money in question. The judge will hear everything presented and make a decision. Appeals can be filed after the ruling, so you might have to go through the process again until there are no grounds left to appeal on. You can also appeal should the case not end in your favor.
Step 6: Remuneration
After the judgment is handed down, you are owed the money you won within ten days time. If you lost, you may be required to pay money within ten days time. You can also file an appeal instead. If there has been no payment or appeal filed within that time, you must go back to the clerk and have them tell the sheriff to issue an execution, giving the sheriff the right to demand payment on your behalf. After that, the sheriff can seize goods and property in order to get the money owed to you. The defendant has 20 days to try to win exemption for certain properties before they can be seized. The execution order is another $25 fee.
If the payment is made to you directly, you must file a receipt with the clerk’s office within 60 days of receiving it. Once you have filed receipt of payment, the process is over, the situation is considered resolved, and the case is complete.