Is It Worth Going to Small Claims Court? You might win the case (or not!) but never collect the funds you’re owed
By Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin
Q: I am the current owner of a home. My name is on the deed. My brother was given access to the house along with a set of keys many years ago by my late uncle. After he died, my uncle left the home to my mother (his sister). My mom then signed the deed over to me.
My brother has never lived in the house, and he has never paid any of the bills or cared for the home. Those tasks and responsibilities were shared between my uncle (before he died) and me. Now, those burdens are all mine.
My brother’s ability to access the home has caused many problems over the years. I revoked his access and asked him to return the keys. He avoided doing so and now claims he has lost them.
One of the keys he has can’t be duplicated, so I have to change out the locks. He refuses to cover the cost to replace the locks. I am so mad, I want to file for reimbursement in small claims court. Do I have a legitimate and realistic claim?
Small fee now, to avoid a potentially bigger problem in the future
A: This is one of those questions where we shake our heads and wonder if someone is pranking the column. Assuming not, here’s the bottom line: There are times in your life where you get so stuck emotionally that it keeps you from seeing the forest for the trees.
You’re so mad, you don’t realize that by solving the problem of the missing keys you might have dodged one that’s potentially explosive. Sibling problems can be a pain but you have to keep things in perspective.
For example, let’s assume your sibling refused to give up his keys and claimed he had a right to occupy the home. And let’s assume he actually moved into the home. Now what? You’d be in a worse position and might have to formally evict him. In this case, your brother simply gave up his rights of access to the home or didn’t fight you when you revoked his access.
Easy peasy. In our view, you’ve avoided a potential disaster. Now, it’s time to move on.
Small claims court might be more costly in the end
Rekeying of locks is often an inexpensive project that many homeowners (including Sam) have accomplished on their own. Having a locksmith change the locks might cost between $100 and $200. You mentioned that one of your keys can’t be duplicated, so replacing a more expensive loan might set you back $500 to $1,000.
Look at this expense in a different way: Changing the locks allows you to make a clean break from your brother. Now you have peace of mind: You know he can’t wander in one day unexpectedly and surprise everyone.
So, now that you’ve solved two problems (the lost key and keeping your brother out of your home), you want to stir things up again? This is a mistake.
Whether you’ve paid $200 or $1,000 to change out the lock, you’ll have to pay fees to file in small claims court. These may be more than it cost you to simply rekey the locks. Plus, there’s the time spent to prepare your case and go to court. And then, what if your brother doesn’t show up? You might win the case (or not!) but never collect the funds you’re owed. An ongoing nightmare that will constantly remind you of the drama that is your brother.
For all these reasons, we think you should take a pass on small claims court. Instead, celebrate the win.
©2023 by Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin.