What steps must be taken by a collection agency once they've filed suit against me
Different states and courts have different local rules. As a general guideline, once you have been sued and served, the court will schedule a deadline for responses. If you do not respond, then the plantiff will file a motion for summary judgment (which the court will grant). If you respond in the required and appropriate fashion, the court will schedule a hearing date. At the hearing, both sides present their arguments. The judge may either render a decision or continue the case or allow additional motions. This goes on and on until either the judge renders a final decision or the parties stipulate to a settlement.
Many courts have the local rules of civil procedure on the internet. Some courts even have the response form templates on the internet where you can just fill in the blanks and then file at the courthouse. Try a search or call the court clerk and ask.
Once a judgment is granted, the plantiff may petition for wage garnishment, bank account levy and attachment of non-exempt assets. There could be an asset hearing which you would be required to attend.
and what are my options (besides the obvious!)
What is the "obvious"? Can you be a little more clear? You can pay or you can not pay. Those are the major options. You could also file bankruptcy.
Also, you could call the attorney representing the creditor and try to work out a deal. They will want to enter an agreed judgment if you are asking them to dismiss the case.
You did not ask, but the first thing you need to figure out is whether the debt is question is still within the SOL for CA -- which is 4 years. The SOL begins to run from the date of default. If more than 4 years have passed you will definately want to file a response stating that the debt is time-barred.
The next thing to figure out is whether or not anyone else can get hurt by the lawsuit. CA is a community property state. If you are married and the debt was acquired during the marriage, both spouses are legally responsible.
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