You have ten (10) days from when you are served with the Rule to Vacate or Show Cause to respond to it. If you do not respond to the Rule, you will lose the eviction case automatically. Knowing when you were served is very important, but the rules that determine when you get served are complex. When in doubt, you can call the magistrate court and ask the clerk, "Do you show a date of service for this Rule in your system? If so, what is the date of service?"
There are two methods for serving a Rule: IN PERSON and BY MAIL. In person must be attempted first, and if no one is found at the unit after two service attempts are made, then the clerk of the magistrate court can mail the Rule.
To serve the Rule in person, someone, usually a constable from the magistrate court, must make two in person attempts. The Rule can be served either on you or on another occupant living in the dwelling unit, like a child who is at least 16 years old, a spouse, or an adult roommate. If no one is present for the first attempt, the process server must post the Rule on "the most conspicuous part of the premises." The process server will then return and made a second in person attempt. The two attempts may not be done on the same day, or at the same time of day. For example, if the first attempt was at 8 a.m., the second attempt cannot be 8 a.m. If no one is served in person on the second attempt, the process server must post the Rule again on "the most conspicuous part of the premises" along with documentation of when the two attempts occurred.
If you (or someone living in your dwelling unit) are served in person, your ten (10) days starts the day after you are served. In other words, you do not count the day you are served.
After the second unsuccessful in person attempt, the clerk at the magistrate court must mail a copy of the Rule, the documentation of the service attempts, and a verification by the clerk that envelope is properly addressed.
If you are served by mail, your ten (10) days starts on the eleventh day after the date of mailing. In other words, if the Rule is mailed on Day 1, then the ten days to respond start on Day 11. BUT, if you contact the magistrate court before the eleventh day, then the ten (10) days start to run from the day you contact the court. For example, if you get served by mail and you call the court on Day 3 after the mailing date, then Day 3 becomes the first day of your ten (10) day response period instead of Day 11.
So, How Do You Respond?
Before doing anything else, decide whether you intend to seek legal advice or representation on your case. If you intend to seek legal counsel, it is best to consult with an attorney before you respond to the Rule, unless you are at the end of your ten (10) day period and do not have time to wait.
The law says you must "appear and show cause" why you should not be evicted within the ten (10) days. Many magistrate courts allow you to simply call the court and ask for a hearing. Others require you to show up in person to answer the Rule. You can contact your magistrate court to find out which response method that court requires.
If you retain an attorney to represent you in the eviction action, your attorney should respond to the Rule for you, or at least tell you when to call and request a hearing. Before you respond, take some time to think about your situation, plan for what to do if you lose the eviction case, and consider what legal defenses you might have to assert. If you have legal defenses, you should write these down and take these to court with you. This will help you remember what you need to prove at the eviction hearing. Some courts may require you to provide a written response to the Rule, something called an "answer." An answer will inform the magistrate court about why you think you should not be evicted. There is one potential draw back to submitting a written answer, and that is, if you later get an attorney to represent you, and the attorney wants to change your answer, the court may not allow the change. On the other hand, the Magistrates Court Rule 14 states that the court should be "lenient" in allowing you to change your answer.
Whether you call and request a hearing, or you submit your answer in writing, be sure to do it no later than the tenth day after you are served!