My sister owes me $625. She owed me $825, but she only paid me $200 via Cash App. That was three months ago. She hasn’t answered my texts, nor has she returned any of my calls.
I have proof of her telling me she would pay me my $625 after she got paid from investors to whom we sold our deceased mother’s property. Can I sue her?
Sure, you could sue your sister. But think carefully about how much time and energy you’re willing to spend recouping $625.
Small claims courts make it pretty easy to sue someone for relatively minor amounts without hiring an attorney. There’s a small fee, typically less than $100. Limits vary by state, but they range anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000. Many defendants don’t bother showing up for the hearing, which means they automatically lose. If you have solid proof — like texts or emails where your sister acknowledged the debt and agreed to pay it — you’d stand a good chance of winning, regardless.
But getting a judgment and actually collecting on it are two different things. And a lot of people will tell you that the latter is the much greater challenge with small claims. The court won’t take any action to enforce the debt, which means it’s up to you to play debt collector.
To decide whether this is worth pursuing, consider your sister’s financial situation. What are the odds that she has any money left of the inheritance? If you obtain a judgment, you may be able to get a court order to garnish her bank account. But if the account is empty, there’s nothing to collect.
An easier option after winning in court is typically to garnish the person’s wages. You can collect up to 25% until they’ve paid off their debt. But in order for you to do this, your sister needs to have a job. If she receives unemployment or other public benefits, like SSI, disability or Social Security, these will be off limits.
Before you head to small claims court, I’d suggest taking one more stab at getting your sister to pay. Try sending her a demand letter via certified mail. You can find free templates on legal websites like LawDepot and UpCounsel.
A few days after you’ve sent the letter, follow up with your sister. Stay calm in any communications you have, but do be firm. Consider sending her a message that you’re willing to let her pay you back in installments, but if you don’t hear back by a certain date, you’ll have no choice but to take her to court. A lot of people don’t repay family members because they don’t really believe they’ll sue them over it. Perhaps showing your sister that you’re serious will spur some action.
If that doesn’t happen, you’ll need to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into getting your $625. One thing to weigh is your relationship with your sister. I get it: Your relationship is currently nonexistent, and your sister is the one responsible for that. But also think about whether you’re holding out any hope of salvaging things. If the answer is yes, I’d vote for keeping things out of court.
No matter what you decide, consider this an expensive lesson. Offering short-term help can have long-lasting damage to relationships. Only lend money to a loved one if you’re OK with never getting it back.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].