Let’s say you need to file for divorce, or want to sue someone in small claims court, or need to probate an estate – when you try to get started, you quickly realize that there are several or even dozens of different courts in your county! Which court should you go to?
In most states, each county has a variety of different types of courts to handle different types of cases. These courts may all be located in one Courthouse, or they may be located in different buildings across the county. In other states, such as California, there is just one type of court in each county. California calls this court Superior Court. Divorces, small claims, probate, and even multi-million dollar lawsuits are all filed in Superior Court in California.
Unfortunately for someone trying to grapple with the court system for the first time, California is the exception when it comes to this issue. Residents of Texas trying to file a case may discover that there are District Courts, Criminal District Courts, County Courts at Law, Statutory Probate Courts, Justice Courts, and Municipal Courts all located in their county.
CourtReference can help you figure out which court is right for the matter you need to handle. When you visit CourtReference, select your state. If you scroll down on the page that comes up, you will find straightforward descriptions of the different types of courts in your state. These descriptions include the types of cases each court handles and whether there is a dollar limit in that particular court.
If you select Michigan, for example, you would learn that the Michigan trial court system consists of Circuit Courts, District Courts, Probate Courts, Municipal Courts, and the Court of Claims. At the bottom of the page, you will find a chart that summarizes where different kinds of cases are heard. If you read the Michigan court descriptions, you would learn that, although Circuit, District, and Municipal Courts may all hear civil cases, Circuit Courts generally hear cases with more than $25,000 in dispute, while District Courts hear cases with less than $25,000 in dispute and may also share Small Claims jurisdiction with Municipal Courts. Let’s say you have a case where you want to sue someone for $5,000 – you would now know that Circuit Court is not for you, but you should look more closely at District and Municipal Courts. You can then go to your county’s page on CourtReference and see which of these types of courts exist in your county (some counties do not have every type of court offered in their state).
In the example of Michigan above, we saw that both District and Municipal courts may have jurisdiction over a small claims case. This is called overlapping jurisdiction, meaning that there are multiple types of courts where you could file the same lawsuit. This only makes things more confusing! Often, individual counties within a state may decide how to address this issue on their own. “County A” may say that all Small Claims cases should be heard in District Court and not Municipal Court. “County B” may say that Small Claims cases can be heard in either one. Sometimes you may need to consult with an attorney to determine whether there is an advantage to you of filing in one court over another.
Some counties may have more than one of a particular type of court. In Texas, for example, a county may have one District Court or more than 30 District Courts! In Harris County, Texas, there are 38 District Courts, not including the 22 Criminal District Courts. To make things easier, Harris County has designated some of the 38 to hear only Family Law cases (such as divorce), some to hear only Juvenile cases, and some to hear only Civil cases. But that still leaves a lot of courts to choose from!
If you find yourself in a county like Harris County, the best thing to do, once you have used CourtReferrence to figure out which type of court you need, is to contact the Clerk for that particular court. You can find court contact information on CourtReference, as well as links to court websites if you need additional contact information.
Let’s recap: if you are trying to deal with a legal matter, but don’t know which court to go to, use your state’s court guide on CourtReference to learn about the different types of courts in your state. If there are multiple types of courts that handle your kind of case, check your county page on CourtReference to see if your county has more than one of these. If so, consider contacting the Court Clerk or an attorney to determine which court is right for you.