smart spending

5 steps to stake your small claim in court

Step 3: Legal practice

Before the court date, channel your inner Perry Mason and practice courtroom delivery.

Rehearse your points and present them clearly and unemotionally. Enlist a friend to critique you. Most small claims hearings only last 10 or 15 minutes -- about the same as "Law & Order" trials without commercials -- so make every second count.

Gather evidence such as lease agreements, copies of bounced checks or photographs of property damage. It's good form to bring three copies: one for you, one for the court and one for the defendant.

You can also line up witnesses (be sure they're on your side!) and an interpreter if needed.

Step 4: Trials and errors

It's possible the defendant may not even show up. If that happens, you generally win immediately by default.

Otherwise, the person presiding over your hearing -- it may not be an actual judge -- may suggest you give negotiation one last try. If that doesn't work, as the plaintiff you state your case first, showing your evidence and calling any witnesses. Then, it's the defendant's turn.

Even if the other side tells an outrageous lie about you, stay calm. You'll get your chance for rebuttal. Most judgments are issued very quickly, sometimes immediately.

The rules for appeal vary by state. But any appeal must contend the judge made a legal error. Saying you disliked his ruling won't get it overturned.

Step 5: Chasing cha-ching

Winning doesn't put money in your pocket. Courts may find in your favor, but they don't collect the cash for you. They are also likely to let the defendant pay in installments.

You may get lucky and receive your settlement quickly. If so, file a form with the court acknowledging the judgment is satisfied.

If the defendant doesn't pay, you must continue your legal fight. The next step may be trying to get wages garnished, a bank account levied or a lien put on property they own.

And the reality is, you may never collect. Some people are known as "judgment proof." Translation: "If the defendant has nothing, your judgment can just be fancy wallpaper," says Ostrow.

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