Learn how to prove someone owes you money by preparing for small claims court evidence rules and procedures ahead of your day in court.
You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that proving a claim in court will require you to present evidence of the facts of your dispute.
In reality, most states require you to attach any evidence documents to the initial form you submit to the court clerk’s office to file your small claims case.
As the plaintiff, this means that you need to be prepared with an evidence file that is credible and compelling enough to prove your case long before a judge issues a court order assigning you a hearing date.
How to determine what evidence can be used in court
To prove that someone owes you money, the evidence you use needs to be admissible - meaning it complies with all of the court’s standards and is therefore allowed to be presented before the judge or jury.
Most state court systems follow guidelines similar to those of the US Federal Rules of Evidence, but you won’t be surprised to know there are entire books written on this topic alone. 😉
If you don’t have time to read all of the US laws on proof of evidence, the three main points you need to consider when determining if a piece of evidence is admissible are:
- Relevancy: evidence is considered “relevant” if it is (a) related to a fact presented in the case and (b) can make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.
- Materiality: this refers to whether or not the evidence relates to a fact that is actually being disputed by the plaintiff or defendant as a key part of the case, and is not a waste of time. Material evidence can be thought of as evidence that truly “matters.”
- Competency: when referring to evidence, competency essentially means reliability. There’s no uniform standard of what’s considered “reliable,” but you should always be prepared to demonstrate that the evidence you’re submitting is legitimate if called into question.
Note that most courts do not consider “hearsay” – or a statement made outside of court that cannot be substantiated – to be evidence meeting the standards above, but like many other aspects of the law, this is riddled with exceptions.
Factors such as attorney-client privilege, or whether a piece of evidence has potential to cause unfair bias amongst the judge or jury (i.e. prejudice), can also affect your ability to use it as proof that the defendant owes you money.
But in general, evidence that is reliable, material, and competent is considered usable in court, so you can feel confident preparing your case around it.
Creating a paper trail of admissible evidence
Unless you graduated from Hogwarts, you probably aren’t able to wave a wand and create admissible evidence files out of thin air. Here are some ways you can begin creating a legal paper trail long before your court date.
Document Your Agreement in Writing
In order for a judge to rule in your favor, you’ll have to demonstrate that there was a clear understanding between you and the person who owes you money.
By far, the best way to do this is by putting the terms of your agreement into a simple written contract or promissory note for you and the other person to sign. You can use a tool such as Pigeon to quickly create and sign a loan agreement online without the need for getting any lawyers involved.
If that’s not an option for you, other communications with your debtor - an email, a text, or a note on a napkin – may still be accepted as written agreements. However, you may have a harder time showing that these messages are clear and legitimate enough to be considered a contract enforceable in court.
Send Written Requests for Payment & Past Due Notices
Even if these communications are ignored, sending Past Due Notices helps demonstrate that you made multiple, good-faith attempts to resolve the matter with your borrower outside of court before taking any actual legal action.
When sending a Past Due Notice to someone who owes you money, be sure to include basic details such as:
- The amount of money owed
- The due date and number of days the payment is past due
- A Call to Action - let the borrower know in a clear but polite manner that the best way to resolve the matter is by making payment on their outstanding debt.
- A Deadline - Even though their payment is already past due, include a reasonable date by which you expect the borrower to make repayment after receiving your letter.
- A copy of the contract or written agreement entered with your borrower (if you have one)
- A confirmation or screenshot of any repayments the borrower has already made on the loan
- A copy or screenshot of any past communications between you and the borrower, including any previous Past Due Notices sent as well communications mentioning things like changes in payment terms, loan extensions, or any unkept promises to make repayment.
Preparing your evidence file for your court date
Once you’re confident you’ve gathered enough admissible evidence to prove your claim, follow these tips to ensure your file is organized and ready to go.
Put all evidence in chronological order
Presenting the facts and supporting evidence to the judge or jury in the order in which they occurred is often the most simple way to ensure they’ll be able to follow and understand your case. Adding a Table of Contents page and a timeline of events to your evidence file can go a long way in helping you communicate the details of your dispute.
Keep your evidence file factual and objective
The best evidence speaks for itself, and avoids the perception of having any embedded opinions or biases that could call into question its integrity. If you’re going to include titles or descriptions of documents you submit as evidence, keep them as dry and objective as possible.
Example: Bad evidence document description
“Screenshot of a payment a few weeks ago to my idiot ex-roommate who won’t pay me back”
Example: Better evidence document description
“Transaction Receipt dated 01/25/2022 from Main Street Bank showing a wire transfer in the amount of $2500 from Account No. 12345678 to South Street Bank Account 87654321 with the Routing Number 01000001.”
Backup your evidence files with other sources
In addition to making copies of all original documents, you should also consider reaching out to other sources or individuals that could validate your own records with more original documents of their own.
For example, instead of just submitting a screenshot of your phone’s “Outgoing Calls” screen, reach out to your phone company and ask them to provide an official copy of your call logs for that month that you can attach as additional proof.
Once you’ve submitted your claim form and evidence file to the court clerk, keep a copy of all your records in a safe place for when it’s time to begin practicing your arguments in the days before the hearing.
To keep track of your loan contract, repayment schedule, and any negotiations with your borrower in an easy-to-use online dashboard, consider bringing your loan to Pigeon; trust us, it’s much less of a headache than the alternatives we mentioned!
This blog post contains general legal information and should not be considered a substitute for legal advice. If you have the means, it is always best to seek assistance from an attorney or law firm.
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