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Small Claims, Filing a Petition

How do I begin a small claims case?

To begin a small claims case, you must file a petition using a court-approved form. Small claims information and instructions, free fillable and savable forms, and free interactive forms are available on the Iowa Judicial Branch website at: https://www.iowacourts.gov/for-the-public/court-forms/.

Are there fees for small claims cases?

Yes, there is a filing fee for small claims cases set by the legislature. You will have to pay the filing fee, unless the court defers prepayment of the filing fee. You may also have an additional cost to serve the Original Notice and Petition on the other party. The required small claims forms are available free of charge on the judicial branch website. These required forms are also in chapter 3 of the Iowa Court Rules.

How do I know whom to sue?

If you do not know or are unsure who should be the defendant, or if you are not sure whether you have a claim, talk to an attorney.

How much are service fees?

Sheriffs’ departments may charge a different amount for service of process depending on the county. Similarly, private process servers may also charge different amounts.

Where do I file if the person I want to sue lives outside of Iowa or in a different county from where I live?

The question of where to file a law suit can be complicated and you should talk to an attorney if you are unsure.

I want to file small claims against someone, but I do not know where the person is. How do I find the person?

There are numerous internet search engines. You could also hire a private detective, but this will cost money.

If a person still cannot be found, you can apply to the court for permission to achieve “Service by publication,” which is accomplished by publishing notice in a newspaper or other public medium. See Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.310. You may want to visit with an attorney about service by publication.

What is the Time Limit for Filing a Small Claim?

The time limit, or the statute of limitations, for filing small claims depends on the type of claim, for example, whether the claim is based on a contract, personal injury, or wages. Iowa Code chapter 614 provides information on this, but other code chapters could apply depending on the type of claim and the facts involved in the case. If you do not know what the statute of limitations is for your claim, you should talk to an attorney immediately.

What do I do after filing my case?

Each defendant must be informed of your lawsuit by receiving, or being served, the Original Notice. To give notice is to make the other party aware of a legal action or filing of a document. Typically a small claims “Original Notice and Petition” is served to begin a small claims lawsuit and states a time in which an answer or response to the petition must be filed with the court. This process is referred to as “service,” “personal service,” or “service of process,” all of which refer to the formal delivery of notice of a legal document, such as a petition, to assure that the opposing party is aware of the action and is given an opportunity to respond.

  • “Personal service” means the actual delivery of the notice to the person to whom it is directed and is usually required for the initiation of most lawsuits. Personal service is typically performed by a sheriff or process server.
  • “Service by publication,” may be done by publishing notice in a newspaper or other public medium, is allowed under certain circumstances, usually when a defendant cannot be located. Service by publication can be complicated and you should talk with an attorney.

The type of notice may vary with the circumstances, such as the type of claim the party wishes to file and whether the defendant lives in Iowa. There are some instructions available on the judicial branch website under the “Small Claims” tab at: https://www.iowacourts.gov/for-the-public/court-forms/. Iowa Code section 631.4 discusses various types of service in small claims actions. If you do not understand how to provide notice or how to do service of your lawsuit, you should talk to an attorney.
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Once I file my claim, how long before I go to court?

Once a petition is filed it must be served upon the opposing party who is then given a reasonable time to respond, usually 20 days from date of service. If an answer is filed denying the claim, the case will be set for a hearing according to the court’s schedule.

What evidence should I bring to court?

You must bring evidence to court to prove your claim. Evidence, or exhibits, can include, for example, testimony from witnesses who are knowledgeable about your claim, photos, documents, printed emails, printed text messages, diagrams, contracts, and receipts.

You are also required to electronically file any printed or photographic exhibits in your case at least a day before the date of your hearing, unless you are exempt from electronic filing. Either way, you should bring copies of your exhibits to court.

What if the defendant does not file an answer on time?

If the defendant fails to answer and the clerk of court determines proper notice was given to the defendant, the clerk of court or a judge may enter a default judgment against the defendant if the plaintiff’s damages are clearly identified. If the plaintiff’s damages are not clearly identified, only a judge can enter a default judgment against defendant.

What happens if the other party does not show up for the court hearing?
  • If the plaintiff fails to appear for the hearing, but the defendant appears, the claim may be dismissed with prejudice, meaning the plaintiff may not refile the same claim.
  • If the plaintiff appears for the hearing, but the defendant does not, the court may enter a default judgment against the defendant.
  • If both parties fail to appear at the time of the hearing, the claim may be dismissed without prejudice, meaning the plaintiff may be able to refile the claim upon paying another filing fee.
My case was dismissed a year ago. Can I file it again?

This depends on how the case was dismissed. If the case was dismissed “with prejudice,” then the case is over and you cannot refile it. If the case was dismissed “without prejudice,” the court did not consider the merits of the claim, and you can file the claim again.

There may also be a question whether the statute of limitations has expired, which can be a complicated issue. If you do not know whether the statute of limitations has expired, or if you do not understand how a statute of limitations works, you should talk to an attorney.

How do I get small claims forms?

The judicial branch uses an electronic filing system, and all required small claims forms are available for free from the Iowa Judicial Branch website in a fillable and savable format at: https://www.iowacourts.gov/for-the-public/court-forms/, under the “Small Claims” tab. Interactive small claims forms are also available from the Iowa Judicial Branch website at: https://www.iowacourts.gov/for-the-public/representing-yourself/small-claims/.

There is abandoned property, how do I deal with it?

There is a court form (3.8) for disposing of abandoned property in chapter 3 of the Iowa Court Rules and available for free from the Iowa Judicial Branch website in a fillable and savable format at: https://www.iowacourts.gov/for-the-public/court-forms/, under the “Small Claims” tab. Interactive small claims forms are also available from the Iowa Judicial Branch website at: https://www.iowacourts.gov/for-the-public/representing-yourself/small-claims/.

I cannot attend court on the date or time of the hearing. What should I do?

If you are unable to attend your court hearing at the time scheduled, you may electronically file a request in writing with the court before the hearing explaining why you cannot attend and requesting a new hearing time or date. There is no guarantee that the court will approve your request.

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