Skip to main content
Iowa Judicial Branch
Main Content

Small Claims

Information on this web page is general in nature. Descriptions of laws and court procedures are abbreviated. This information is not intended as legal advice. If you do not understand this information or if you need legal advice you should see an attorney.

What is small claims court?  

Small claims is a simple court process for resolving civil disputes involving small amounts of money. Applicable Iowa laws may be found in Iowa Code chapter 631.

What kinds of cases are heard in small claims court?

A small claims case is a civil action for a money judgment in which the amount of damages is $5,000 or less. An action for forcible entry and detainer arising out of a landlord tenant dispute can be brought in small claims court. In small claims court, cases are tried before a judge, not a jury. 

How do I start a small claims case? 

To begin a small claims case, review the instructions for self-represented litigants filing small claims actions.  You will then electronically file the appropriate small claims Original Notice form and pay the $85 filing fee. The official forms to use in Iowa small claims cases are available free of charge on this website. You may have an additional cost for having the petition served on the other party.  Once you have filed the Original Notice and paid the filing fees and other associated fees, you have started your case. You must file electronically unless you get permission from the court to file in paper.  The official forms to use in Iowa small claims cases are available free of charge on this website.

What is the process for defending a small claims case? 

If you have received an Original Notice naming you as a defendant in a small claims case, you should review the instructions for a defendant responding to a small claims action.  You will then file an Appearance and Answer form. There is no fee for filing an answer. 

If you do not file an answer, you risk the chance of having the court enter a default judgment against you awarding the plaintiff what he or she asked for in the Original Notice and Petition.

If you believe you also have a claim against the person suing you, you may file a small claims counterclaim

What is the process after the case is filed?

If the other party has entered a timely answer, the clerk will assign a case to the court calendar for hearing. 

Judicial magistrates hear most small claims cases, though any judge may hear a small claims case. Small claims hearings are simple and informal. Be sure to review the tips for representing yourself before your hearing.

If the hearing is contested, the magistrate will electronically record the proceeding. Hearings will not be recorded by a certified court reporter unless a party provides the reporter at the party's own expense.

What if the other party does not appear at the hearing? 

Unless good cause to the contrary is shown:

  • If both parties fail to appear at the time of the hearing, the claim will be dismissed without prejudice, meaning the plaintiff may be able to refile the claim upon paying another $85 filing fee.
  • If the plaintiff fails to appear, but the defendant appears, the claim will be dismissed with prejudice, meaning the plaintiff may not refile the same claim.
  • If the plaintiff appears, but the defendant does not, the court will enter a default judgment against the defendant. 
  • If the defendant fails to appear and the clerk of court determines proper notice was given, the clerk of court will enter a default judgment against the defendant if plaintiff’s damages are clearly identified. If plaintiff’s damages are not clearly identified, only a judge can enter a default  judgment on plaintiff’s claim.

Can I set aside a default judgment?

A defendant may ask the court to set aside a default judgment for good cause, including a mistake, inadvertence, surprise, excusable neglect, or unavoidable casualty. A motion to set aside a default judgment must be filed promptly after the discovery of the grounds, but not more than sixty days after entry of the judgment. 

Can I appeal a small claims case? 

If you are unhappy with a small claims judgment you may appeal the case. To appeal you must:

  • Either tell the judge at the conclusion of the hearing that you want to appeal, or file a notice of appeal within twenty days after the decision is rendered. 

  • Pay the docket fee to the clerk of court within twenty days after the decision is rendered. 

If a magistrate decided the original action, a district associate or district court judge will hear the appeal. If a district associate judge heard the original action, a district court judge will decide the appeal. And if a district court judge heard the original action, another district court judge will decide the appeal. 

The appeal will be heard upon the record without taking additional evidence. If the original action was electronically recorded, the recording will be the record on appeal.

If you are not pleased with the outcome of the appeal, you may ask the Iowa Supreme Court to review the case. In small claims cases, however, the supreme court has discretion to decide if it will review the case—review is not a matter of right. 

Do I need an attorney in a small claims action?

Some litigants in small claims court choose to have an attorney, but it is not required.

© 2018 Iowa Judicial Branch. All Rights Reserved.