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Small Claims Help

Self-Help Small Claims

Small claims is a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. The rules are simple and informal. You may ask a lawyer for advice before you go to court, but you cannot have a lawyer in court.

United States citizenship is not required to file or defend a small claims case, but the parties must be at least 18 years old. Only cases for money for actual damages can be filed in small claims court. Your claim cannot be more than $5,000 or $7,500 if you are a natural person (not a business or public entity).

Learn more about Small Claims here.

Examples of disputes that can be settled in small claims court are:

  • A landlord will not return a security deposit.
  • Someone dents a car and refuses to pay for it.
  • Any case involving money disputes that do not exceed $5,000 or $7,500.
  • Only cases for money for actual damages can be filed in small claims court.

Click on the topics and questions below for more information.

A small claims case may be filed if any of the following apply:

A filing fee must be paid for each claim that is filed. Those who believe they are unable to pay the filing fee may request a fee waiver.

Click here to access the fee schedule.

You need to:

File the original claim and one copy with the clerk’s office.

Make two copies of your claim for each named defendant.

Make one copy to keep for yourself.

A copy of the plaintiff’s claim and order to defendant must be served on the defendant. Proper legal notice must be given to the person being sued. This is called service of process. The defendant may be served in three ways:

Service by a law enforcement officer.

Personal or substitute service by anyone who is over age 18 and not involved in the case.

Certified mail by the clerk of the court.

The person who served the form must complete a proof of service that states exactly when and where the defendant was served. Proof of service must be submitted to the court at least 5 days before the trial date.

You must serve every defendant you sue by one of the following methods:

  • Personal service using sheriff’s office representatives.
  • Private process servers.
  • Disinterested party. (A disinterested party is anyone over the age of 18 years who is not a party to the claim.)
  • Certified mail by the court.
  • If you want the court to serve the defendant(s) by certified mail, you will be charged $10.00 for each defendant to be served. You must contact the court two weeks prior to the hearing date to find out if the service was successful.
  • If you are unable to serve the defendant(s), you must reschedule the hearing date and attempt to have the defendant(s) served in one of the other ways listed above.
  • If you choose to have the defendant(s) personally served, you must file a properly completed proof of service form with the court at least five (5) days before the hearing date.

Defendant must appear at the time and place set for trial. A failure to appear may result in the entry of a default and judgment against defendant.

Defendant may file a defendant’s claim and order to plaintiff in the same small claims court before the date and time of hearing, if it is believed that plaintiff owes defendant money as a result of the dispute. If a case against the plaintiff is filed, the same rules and procedures above will apply.

Evidence of the claim or defense (any receipts, letters, invoices, canceled checks or photographs) should be brought to court. A subpoena duces tecum may be requested to obtain evidence from a witness. This is a court order commanding a witness to bring certain documents or records to the hearing.

Each party to the case may serve subpoenas on witnesses who can give testimony to help with their case. The subpoena is a court order compelling the witnesses to appear and testify.

Litigants must notify the court in advance if they require the assistance of an interpreter. For interpreter requests click here.

The plaintiff’s case is presented first, followed by the defendant’s case. All parties may call witnesses and present exhibits.

At the time your matter is called to hearing by the commissioner of the court, you will be informed that you may elect to consult with a mediator prior to the actual hearing. The Tuolumne County Superior Court provides these mediation services at no cost to the parties involved. If the parties choose to make an effort to settle the matter before the hearing, you will be taken to a private room with the mediator. If you are able to reach an agreement, you will return to the courtroom and notify the commissioner that: 1) a complete settlement was negotiated and the matter is dismissed; 2) a compromise was reached and you want the terms set forth on the record; 3) an agreement was reached, but conditions must be met before the case can be dismissed; or 4) no agreement was able to be made and you want to proceed with a hearing.

Either plaintiff or defendant can submit one written request to reschedule the hearing date. Requests must be made at least 10 days prior to the court date. Failure to appear at trial or make arrangements for postponement could result in dismissal of the case (if plaintiff fails to appear), or entry of default judgment (if defendant fails to appear.) There is a fee to reschedule the hearing date.

Only a defendant may file an appeal. However, if the defendant files a Defendant's Claim, the plaintiff may file an appeal as to that claim only. The appeal must be filed in the clerk’s office within 30 days after the court’s denial of the motion to vacate judgment was mailed. There is a filing fee for an appeal.

A judgment is good for 10 years. If payment is not received on the judgment in the time specified by the judge, there are many options available to collect. Forms for these actions are available in the clerk’s office and must be filed with the court:

Writ of Execution – A writ is an order to the sheriff to collect money from the defendant’s paycheck or bank account. There is a fee for issuance of the writ.

Abstract of Judgment – An abstract places a lien on any real property the defendant might own. The abstract is filed with the county clerk in the county where the property is located. There is a fee for issuance of the abstract.

Judgment Debtor Hearing – The hearing allows the plaintiff to question the defendant as to where the defendant works and banks and what types of property the defendant owns. After obtaining the information, a Writ of Execution may be obtained from the clerk’s office and taken to the sheriff’s office for enforcement of the writ. There is a fee for the hearing.

Suggested number of copies of forms:

Writ(s): Original plus 4 copies

Order of Examination: Original plus 3 copies

Abstract: Original plus 1 copy

Note: Verify that all pages of forms are copied.

Litigates must notify the court in advance if they require the assistance of an interpreter. Click HERE to go to the Interpreter Information page.

Tips for Small Claims Litigants

  • No food, drinks, or gum are allowed in the courtroom.
  • Be prepared and on time. You must be present when your case is called.
  • Do not ask the court staff for legal advice. The staff is not allowed to give legal advice.

The scheduled date with which you are provided is the date set for your trial. You must come to court prepared to present your case.


Bring all the exhibits you might want the court to see and consider, such as written contracts, repair estimates, photos, receipts, etc. You will be required to allow the opposing party to see and read your exhibits before your case is heard. If you have exhibits that will take time to read, you should make copies and give them to the opposing party either before the trial date or on the trial date, as soon as both parties have arrived in court.


If you have any witnesses whose testimony you need to prove your case, they should come to court on your trial date. You are solely responsible for arranging the appearance of any witnesses at your trial. Remember that this is your case, and you must present the evidence for the court to consider.

Answering Questions

As the plaintiff in the case, you are the one requesting judgment. Be ready to answer questions the judge may ask, such as, "How did you arrive at the amount of the claim?"
The court may keep the exhibits you present. If you need copies of your records to retain, you should make those copies before you come to court.


Litigates must notify the court in advance if they require the assistance of an interpreter. Click HERE to go to the Interpreter Information page.

  • If your name is on the calendar, when the courtroom is unlocked, please take a seat in the courtroom and remain in the courtroom until roll is taken and the oath has been administered.
  • When roll is taken, if you are representing someone else, please advise the clerk taking the roll of that fact, and give him or her your name and correct spelling. Be sure to notify the clerk of any change of address.
  • After roll is taken, if you have not already done so, give the opposing party copies of your exhibits or let the opposing party see the exhibits you plan to present to the court. The opposing party must have a chance to read the exhibits before the judge sees them. You will delay the time of your trial if you do not give these copies to the opposing party ahead of time. Keep your original exhibits until your case is called.
  • Cases may possibly not be called in the order listed on the posted calendar.
  • Mediation is highly regarded as an excellent alternative to a trial. An ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) representative (mediator) will be at court on the day and time of your hearing to help you resolve your case.
  • The mediator is specially trained and impartial, and he or she does not give legal advice or make decisions. The parties involved in the dispute make the decisions, and the mediator and the parties work together to identify the issues that are most important for each side and then to find practical resolutions. If a settlement cannot be reached, the case goes to trial that same day and a judge will decide the outcome.

  • Once a judgment is rendered, the time to appeal the court’s decision extends for 30 days. The judgment will become final after the 30 day appeal period, if an appeal is not filed.
  • Original exhibits may be picked up from the civil division at the Justice Center Courthouse after the judgment becomes final.
  • Once a judgment is issued in your case, a notice of that judgment will be mailed to you.
  • If your matter was taken under advisement by the judge hearing your case, you will be notified of his or her decision by mail. The court can take up to 90 days to issue a ruling when a case is taken under advisement (submission). Please do not call the court.

Small Claims Limitation

Important note:

Certain claimants cannot file more than two small claims court actions for more than $2,500 anywhere in the State of California during any calendar year. However, a claimant may file any number of claims for $2,500 or less. You can fill out printable forms by clicking below.

For access to the Judicial Council of California Small Claims Center, please click here.

Note: Nothing in this website is intended as either legal advice or as a ruling of the court. This information is provided as a general guide only. You are encouraged to get the assistance of a lawyer if legal advice is necessary.

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