Check you have a case for small claims

Before you start a small claims case, you need to make sure your case is right for small claims court. There are rules about what cases can be decided in small claims court. You can waste a lot of time and energy if you file a case only to find out it can't be decided in small claims.

Before you start a small claims case

How much money you can ask for? Do you have a legal reason you can sue? Who should you sue and how do you find them? 

Figuring out the answers will help you decide if your case is right for small claims. If it is, knowing the answers will help you as you fill out the small claims forms.

Some kinds of cases have special rules you must follow. These types of cases include if you are suing:

If you don't follow the special rules you will lose your small claims case. Review this information as well as the rest of the questions on this page before starting your case.

What you need to figure out

  • How much money to ask for

    In small claims court, there are limits on how much money you can ask for.

    • In general, an individual can sue for up to $12,500 
    • If you're suing on behalf of your business, you can sue for up to $6,250 
    • You also can sue twice per calendar year for over $2,500

    You will need to figure out how much you want to ask for under the limit. Figuring how much to ask for isn't always straightforward. Sometimes there are laws that say you can ask for penalities, like in a case about a security deposit or bounced check

    • EXAMPLE: unpaid loan 

      Your friend borrowed $5,000. They agreed to pay you $100 per month. They stopped paying and have missed 2 payments.

      You want to sue them for the entire $5,000 loan amount. But, you can only sue for the missed payments (which in this example is $200, unless your agreement with them says something else).


      You can sue them for the missed payments and then sue them again if they miss more payments. Or, wait until the end of the loan payments and sue for the whole amount

    • EXAMPLE: security deposit

      Your landlord didn’t return your deposit after you moved out and also didn’t send you a letter explaining why they kept your entire deposit within the time the law says they must.

      The law allows you to sue for more than the deposit amount to punish the landlord for not following the law. You also may be able to ask for other money like interest or penalties in other types of lawsuits, too.

  • If you only want something other than money

    Generally, small claims cases are about money, not for the judge to order someone to do something or not do something. 

    If you want someone to do something (or not do something) but having them pay you money would be acceptable instead, then a small claims case is an option.

    • EXAMPLE: Take down the fence or Pay

      Your neighbor built a fence on your property and you want them to take it down. You'd also be okay with them leaving the fence where it is and paying you $9,000. You can start a small claims case if they won't agree to pay you.

    • EXAMPLE: returning the BBQ grill

      You and your ex broke up and you want the BBQ grill back that you paid for. Your ex won't return it to you. In small claims court, the judge can't make your ex give you the grill, but you could ask that the judge order your ex to pay you money equivalent to the price of a used BBQ grill.

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    If you're not asking for money, talk to a small claims advisor

    If you only want to ask the judge to order the other side to do something or not do something, you may need to start a regular civil court case, not a small claims case. Talk to a Small Claims Advisor or get other legal help.

  • You have a legal reason you're owed money

    At a hearing, you'll need to be able to tell the judge the reason you are owed money. The law may be different from the reasons you feel someone owes you money.
    Before you start your court case, learn whether there is a legal reason the other side owes you money. And, if so, what that reason is.

    There are many, many different legal reasons someone can be at fault and owe you money. In addition to these 2 examples, you can research your own situation by talking to a Small Claims Advisor, look at these other common situations, visit the law library to research the law, or get other legal help.

    • EXAMPLE: Who can trim the tree?

      Your neighbor trims the branches on a tree where the trunk is on your side of the fence. The branches hang over their side of the fence. You may feel they can’t trim the tree because it’s your tree. But the law allows them to trim what’s on their side of the property line (there are exceptions to this you can research).

    • Example: Lending  money to buy a car

      You loaned your adult son money to buy his friend’s car. One week later the car breaks down. Your son’s friend won’t help pay for the repairs.

      You want to sue the friend because your money was used to buy the car. But the law says you can't (you don’t have “standing”). Only your son can sue his friend. And, if your son sues his friend and his friend didn’t make any guarantees about the car, your son may not win his case.

  • Who to sue and where they are

    Who to sue

    Sometimes it's clear who owes you money. But sometimes it's not so clear. Sometimes there are additional people - or businesses -  you should sue (or not sue) you may not have thought of. 

    If the other side is a business, you will need to know their official business name. 

    • Example: Who to sue in a Car accident

      If you're in a car accident, you would sue the person who hit your car if it was their fault. You can also sue the owner of the car if that’s a different person than the driver, even if they weren’t in the car with the driver during the accident. On the other hand, you don’t sue the other driver’s insurance company.

    • Example: who to sue about a rent deposit

      You move out of your apartment, leaving it spotless. Your landlord doesn't give you your deposit back or send you a letter telling why you didn't get it back. You ask the apartment manager about your deposit. They tell you they don’t handle deposit returns. You may think you should sue the apartment manager and landlord but you only sue the landlord.

    Where they are

    You need to know where whoever you think owes you money is so

    • You can put that address on the court forms
    • They can be given the forms if you decide to sue them. If you're suing a business, they may have a designated person that receives court forms (known as Agent for Service of Process)

    Get tips on how to find a person or a business and agent for service of process.

    If the person you want to sue is living outside California, you may not be able to sue them unless they return to California. There are some exceptions. For example, if you are suing because of a car accident and the other driver is from out of state or you are suing about a property you rented and the owner of the property lives out of state.

    Talk to a small claims advisor if the person you want to sue lives outside California. Even if you are able to sue them, it may be hard to collect the money out of state.
  • You have proof

    You don’t have to have all your proof together before you start a small claims case. But, you have to know what you need and that you will be able to get it in time to bring to your court hearing. Examples of proof (also called evidence) are:

    • Repair receipts
    • Photos of damage
    • Emails
    • Business records
    • EXAMPLE: proof of repair costs

      Someone hit your car with theirs. You have a police report showing the other driver is at fault. You also need a paid invoice or a few estimates for the repair costs to bring with you to your court hearing.

    • EXAMPLE: pictures of a clean apartment

      Your landlord didn't return your security deposit. You could bring photos of the clean home with timestamps that show when the photos were taken or have your friend who saw the clean home come to your court hearing to talk about it.

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    Give yourself time to get the proof you need. It can sometimes take months to get the proof you need. For example, you may need a court order to get business or medical records (a subpoena). If you start a small claims case, make sure you leave enough time to get the proof you need before your court date.


  • You don't have an agreement that says you can't sue

    Sometimes written agreements (if there is one) say you have to stay out of court if you and the other side don't agree.

    Or, it says that everyone has to go to:

    • Mediation (try to work things out with someone neutral)
    • Arbitration (like hiring your own judge)

    before, or instead of, opening a court case. 

    Many attorney-fee contracts have rules about going to arbitration before suing. Check your agreement to see what it says. If you need or want to go to arbitration, see the steps you'll need to take before you can sue.
  • You haven't passed the deadline to sue

    There are filing deadlines called Statutes of Limitation. Deadlines are different for different types of cases. 

    Some common deadlines:

    • Written agreement - 4 years from when broken
    • Unwritten (verbal) agreement - 2 years from when broken
    • Personal injury - 2 years from injury
    • Property damage - 3 years from when damaged

    Read about deadlines for other types of cases and exceptions.

    If you are suing the State of California or a local government, there are other deadlines you'll need to meet.


    Make sure you don't miss any deadlines. 

    If you file after your deadline, the other side can ask the judge to rule against you because you filed too late. They'll probably win, even if you had a good case against them. 

Is a small claims case worth your time?

If you do have a case for small claims, it's good to ask yourself if you want to start a small claims case. 

  • Are you ready to invest significant time getting ready for your court date?
  • If you win in court, does the other side have the money to pay you? You probably won’t know before you start your case if the other side has money to pay you but you should start thinking about that before filing. 
  • If you’re suing your neighbor or someone you’ll still know in the future, will winning fix the problem or ruin the relationship?  
  • Will the time you take to start your case, go to court, and collect the money (if you win) be worth it? 
  • Will being involved in the court case, maybe for years (if you win and the other side doesn't pay or is on a payment plan), keep you feeling angry or stressed for that amount of time? Could you use your energy better in other ways? 

Small Claims

What's next?

Once you've answered all of these questions and decided that you can sue in small claims court and that you do want to move forward, the first step is to you ask the person you're suing for the money or what you want. Once you've asked them, you can file a small claims case.

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