Question: I own a small business in Gwinnett County, GA. We are being sued and since I’m the registered agent for my company, I was served with a lawsuit last week. When do I have to file an answer?

Brief answer: That’s actually a more complicated question than some people will have you to believe. The length of time you have to file the answer will first depend on whether your company is being sued in state court or federal court. If it’s a Georgia case but it’s not a federal lawsuit, your deadline will also depend on whether the Plaintiff filed the affidavit of service within five days of serving you with the summons and complaint.

As we’ve said before, if you’re being sued, contact an experienced attorney immediately. There are many subtle nuances to civil litigation which can become pitfalls that cause you to lose your legal rights. Further, many nuances are NOT taught in law school or tested on the bar exam and are generally learned from experience.

Length of time to file an answer

The first place to look when determining how long you have to file an answer will be the summons you were served with. The summons is an important legal document which, along with the complaint, gives you notice of the lawsuit.

If you’ve been sued in federal court, you will have file an answer a mere 21 days after you’ve been served with the summons and complaint.[1] The federal court deadline is much shorter than that of Georgia’s state court system[2] and as you’ll see below, the federal court’s deadline is also less complicated than Georgia’s state courts.

On the other hand, if you’ve been sued in one of Georgia’s state courts (e.g., those courts within Georgia’s borders which do NOT have “U.S.” or “United States” in front their names), the deadline to file an answer is generally 30 days after you’ve been served with the summons and complaint.[3] However, if you miss the 30-day deadline, Georgia is special in that it allows an additional 15 days[4] for you to file an answer by “opening default” (i.e., undoing the default).[5]

In addition, you should note that Georgia is special in yet another way: the deadline to file your answer is contingent on the Plaintiff’s filing of proof of service (e.g., an Affidavit of Service of Process or a Sheriff’s Entry of Service). To illustrate, after a Defendant is served with a summons and complaint, O.C.G.A. § 9-11-4(h) provides that the Plaintiff (or the sheriff whom the Plaintiff hired) will have to file proof of service within five (5) days of serving the Defendant. If neither the Plaintiff nor the sheriff files proof of service within five days of service, the “clock” will not begin ticking until after the Plaintiff or the sheriff files the proof of service.[6]

Thus, in practice, if you are served with a Georgia lawsuit on January 1st and proof of service is filed on January 5th, your “clock started ticking” on January 1st (not January 5th). Thus, you’ll need to file your answer by January 31st. However, if you’re served on January 1st but proof of service is not filed until January 29th, your clock actually did not start ticking until January 29th—yes, that seems strange and you should review Mughni v. Beyond Management Group, Inc., 349 Ga. App. 398 (2019) and Summers v. Wasdin, 337 Ga. App. 671 (2016) to become familiar with this special nuance in Georgia.

Final Note: As a practical matter, relying on the proof of service to trigger your decision to file an answer would be very risky. The reason: Courts in Georgia use multiple e-filing systems and the technology can be very unreliable. So, proof of service may have been filed within five days but you might not see it in the court’s online database due some type of glitch in the technology (or maybe the clerk is simply very far behind in approving the electronic filings and that could cause delay in your seeing that proof of service was filed).

[1] FED. R. CIV. P. 12(a)(1)(A)(i),

[2] Here, it’s important to note that “state court” is being distinguished from “federal court” and Georgia’s state court system includes the (1) Superior Court, (2) Magistrate Court, and (3) State Courts of Georgia.

[3] O.C.G.A. 9-11-12 (providing “[a] defendant shall serve his answer within 30 days after the service of the summons and complaint upon him, unless otherwise provided by statute).

[4] O.C.G.A. 9-11-55(a) (providing “[t]he default may be opened as a matter of right by the filing of such defenses within 15 days of the day of default, upon the payment of costs).

[5] Filing a Motion to Open Default generally isn’t necessary unless the Plaintiff quickly filed a Motion for Default Judgment after you missed the 30-day deadline.

[6] See e.g., Mughni v. Beyond Management Group, Inc., 349 Ga. App. 398 (2019); Summers v. Wasdin, 337 Ga. App. 671 (2016).