You've been sued. The clock is running.

The steps involved in a lawsuit differ from one court system to another. Therefore, when you receive a summons and complaint, it is important to read them carefully.

Usually, when a case is filed and you are served with a summons, a clock starts running. You have a limited time to respond to the lawsuit by filing a document known as an appearance and, in most cases, filing an answer to the complaint. If you fail to take these steps, you may lose your right to dispute the lawsuit and defend yourself.

After you have filed your appearance and answer, a date may be set for either a trial or a report to the court on the status of the case. In the meantime, the parties have the right to conduct discovery. Discovery is a process for each side to find out more about the issues in dispute. It may require people to answer questions under oath in a deposition or through interrogatories. A deposition is an oral examination, while interrogatories are written answers to questions.

In most courts, the judge will try to settle the case after discovery is completed and before the trial. The great majority of cases do settle without going to trial.

When a civil case goes to trial, it may be heard and decided by a judge or a jury. A jury will decide the case if any of the parties asks for one. Usually, there is an additional filing fee to demand a jury. If the case is decided against the person being sued, the judge or jury will also decide how much the damages are.

After a settlement or trial, a court order is written and signed by the judge. The order sets out the obligations resulting from the lawsuit. If there is an order for damages and money is owed, the order can be enforced by such collection methods as wage assignment, where money is taken out of a paycheck, or the sale of assets such as a car or house.

If you lose a lawsuit, you might be able to bring an appeal to a higher court. However, appeals can be brought for only a limited number of reasons and are costly and time-consuming.

Zall, Bureaucratus columnist and a retired federal employee, is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. He specializes in taxes, investing, business and government workplace issues. He is a certified internal auditor and a registered investment adviser. He can be reached at miltzall@qis.net.

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