Although you can find many small-claims success stories online, many self-proclaimed winners never filed a small claims case in the first place. Instead, they followed the advice that before going to court, it's wise to write the other party a clear, concise letter demanding payment. As a result, many received all or most of what they asked for without ever stepping foot in a courtroom.

What Makes a Demand Letter So Effective?

That a simple letter can be so effective may seem almost too good to be true, especially if you have unsuccessfully argued with your adversary in person or over the phone. However, a letter works in as many as one-third of all cases, probably because, in legal contexts, the written word is far more powerful than speech.

To understand why, think about the times you have found yourself embroiled in a heated consumer dispute. After angry words were exchanged — maybe even including your threat of a lawsuit — what happened next? Chances are, nothing at all. For any number of reasons, from a death in the family or simply not having enough time, you didn't follow up and pursue the claim.

That inaction is exactly what people expect. Things change if you write a letter, laying out the reasons why the other party owes you money and stating that if you fail to get satisfaction, you plan to go to small claims court pronto. Now, instead of being just another cranky face on the other side of the counter or a voice on the phone, you and your dispute take on a sobering realness.

For the first time, the other party must confront the likelihood that you won't simply go away but instead plan to have your day in court. They must face the fact that they will have to expend time and energy to publicly defend their position. If your position has at least some merit, the chances that the other party will be willing to pay at least a portion of what you ask will go way up.

Writing the Letter

Making a demand for payment before filing suit is recommended by most small claims courts and required by a few others. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Review the history of the dispute. At first this may seem a bit odd; after all, your opponent knows the story. But remember that if you end up in court, the letter will be read by a judge who doesn't know the facts of your dispute.
  • Be polite. You catch more flies with honey than by hitting them over the head with a mallet. Absolutely avoid personally attacking your adversary (even one who deserves it). The more annoying you are, the more you invite the other person to respond in a similarly angry vein. You want the other person to instead adopt a business-like analysis: "What are my risks of losing? How much time will a defense take? Do I want the dispute to be made public?" Hopefully, the other party will decide that it makes sense to compromise.
  • Keep a copy for yourself. Use a typewriter or computer so that you can print multiple copies and have an electronic backup.
  • Say exactly what you want. Ask for a specific amount of money to be paid by a set date or for the other person to do something, such as fix a botched home repair job.
  • Make your next step clear. Conclude by stating that you will file in small claims court if your demand is not met.

Sample Letter

Acme Fix-It Garage
10000 Main St.
Some Town, IL 60000

Dear Mr. Tucker,

On May 21, 20xx, I took my car to your garage for servicing. Shortly after picking it up the next day, the engine caught fire because of your failure to properly tighten the fuel line to the fuel injector. Fortunately, I was able to douse the fire without injury.

As a direct result of the fire, I paid ABC Garage $681 for necessary repair work. I enclose a copy of their invoice.

In addition, as a direct result of the fire, I was without the use of my car for three days and had to rent a car to get to work. I enclose an invoice for the rental cost of $145.

In a recent phone conversation, you claimed that the fire wasn't the result of your negligence and would have happened anyway. Then you claimed that even if it was your fault, I should have brought my car back to your garage so you could have fixed it at a lower cost.

As to the first issue, Peter Klein of the ABC Garage is prepared to testify in court that the fire occurred because the fuel line was not properly connected to the fuel injector.

Secondly, I had no obligation to return the car to you for further repair. I had the damage you caused repaired at a commercially reasonable price and am prepared to prove this with several higher estimates by other garages.

Please send me a check or money order for $826 on or before July 15. If I don't receive payment by that date, I'll promptly file this case in small claims court.

You may reach me during the day at 555-555-2857 or in the evenings until 10 p.m. at 555-555-8967.


Jane Doe