What to expect during a debt trial

At trial, each side presents its case to the judge. Then, the judge will make a decision about which side wins (or awards a judgment to one side). Debt cases typically take one to two hours, unless either side has a lot of witnesses.

If you've never been to court, get basic tips for what to expect in a courtroom. 

Get basic information like where to sit, what to do if you're late, and what rules you'll need to follow. 

You'll need to know rules of evidence for your trial

illustration of a book

Get familiar with the rules of evidence. In court, everyone must follow the rules of evidence. These rules say what evidence a judge (or jury) can consider when they make a decision. 

Court proceedings have rules of evidence that everyone must follow. These rules exist to make sure that the judge gets reliable, relevant, and accurate evidence to consider when making decisions about your case.

Some of the most important rules are:

  • Generally, people can only talk about what they know first-hand – what they themselves saw, heard, felt. There are some exceptions to this rule.
  • The other side has the right to cross-examine anyone whose words (whether written or spoken) are being considered.
  • All testimony must be relevant information.

You can find the rules for what evidence can be used in court in the California Evidence Code. You will have to follow these rules even if you are self-represented. You will not get any special treatment just because you are not a lawyer. And the judge and the court staff cannot help you prepare or present your case.

Basic flow of a trial

Most trials have the same steps. You start with a short statement about what evidence you have and what you want the judge to decide. Then, both sides get a chance to present their evidence and ask either side's witnesses questions. Next, you can make a final argument why the judge should rule in your favor. Finally, the judge will make a decision.

Select a step to find out what to expect and get instruction on how to prepare for that step.


You and the other side may start with brief introduction to your case

An opening statement is a brief introduction to the case. It's a preview of the evidence you plan to present. You can't make arguments in your opening statement. 

Thus, the statement "The account is over the statute of limitations," would not be allowed, but "The evidence will show the account is over the statute of limitations," would be allowed.

In an opening statement, you say what evidence you plan to present and often end with what you want the judge to decide or order.

Often, the judge will waive the opening statement in a debt case.

“Good morning, your honor. My name is Dana Smith. I am the defendant. I’ll keep this brief. 

As the plaintiff described, this is based on an old credit card account. The evidence today will show that the plaintiff’s claim is barred by running of the statute of limitations. Or in the alternative, laches. In support of this, I will testify, and will introduce bank statements, cancelled checks, and account statements, that show that for years I consistently made my credit card payments from my only bank account. The payments stopped in 2015. The debt collector filed this suit in 2020, more than 4 years since the payments stopped.

At the end of the case, I will ask the court to find that I owe nothing to the plaintiff.” 

The plaintiff starts the case by presenting its evidence

The plaintiff will present its case by either asking a witness questions or presenting a declaration in lieu of live testimony. To present a declaration instead of a witness, the case must be a limited civil case (under $25,000).

During the plaintiff's case, you can:

A judge can exclude a declaration (not let it be used in the trial) if it is missing required information or didn't follow rules for service. The declaration must have:

  • A current address for the witness that is within 150 miles of the place of trial
  • A  location where you can serve the witness 20 days before trial

The Plaintiff must serve the Declaration at least 30 days before trial. 

After the plaintiff presents its case, the defendant can present their case

If you have any witnesses:

  • Call your witness and examine them, or ask them questions that allow them to give evidence that supports your case
  • Use the testimony of your witnesses to introduce exhibits (documents, emails, etc.) that support your case
  • The plaintiff may cross-examine the witness
  • You have an opportunity to briefly question the witness again (a redirect) asking questions that clarify or challenge information from the cross-examination
  • The plaintiff will have the opportunity for a brief re-cross-examination

If you testify, it's likely you will simply be allowed to present your side, with the judge occasionally interrupting to ask questions. You will introduce your exhibits by testifying you have personal knowledge of them.

At the end of the trial, both sides can summarize their case. The plaintiff will go first. Then you'll present your closing statement.

After your closing statement, the plaintiff will have the opportunity to make a brief argument against your closing statement (give a rebuttal).

The judge will either make a decision at the end of the trial or will mail you the decision to you, often within 5 to 10 days.


Return to an overview of the entire process for debt lawsuits

Debt trials

What's next?

Once the trial is over, you'll get a judgment. If the judgment says you owe money, find out what to expect. 

success alert banner:

Have a question about Debt Collection?

Look for a "Chat Now" button in the right bottom corner of your screen. If you don’t see it, disable any pop-up/ad blockers on your browser.