"Service" refers to formal delivery of a document to a person in accordance with applicable legal rules. Certain legal papers must be served before they become effective. For instance, a summons notifies someone that he is being sued. The defendant does not have to answer the suit until the summons and complaint are served on him. Likewise, a subpoena does not have the power to compel someone to appear in court until it is served properly on the intended person. If service does not comply with applicable rules, the person who is served can go to court to challenge the effectiveness of the document.
Find the relevant rules. The rules for valid service of legal papers vary based on your state and the specific court in which the case is pending. Service of papers in federal court is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4 and the local rules of the court. State courts each have their own rules about who can serve papers and how papers must be served. The rules applicable to your case will determine how and whether you can challenge service.
Find out who made service. Many courts limit who is authorized to serve legal papers. For instance, in Illinois, legal papers must be served by a county sheriff or a specially appointed process server. Every federal court requires that papers be served by someone older than 18 who is not a party to the case. If an unauthorized person serves papers, that may provide a basis to challenge service.
Determine if the method of service was proper. Certain courts require that legal papers be served in person on the person for whom they are intended. In other circumstances, papers may be delivered to another person in the same household. Other courts permit service of papers by certified mail. Determine what methods of service are authorized in your specific case.
Decide if the court has jurisdiction. A court must have both personal jurisdiction over the person being sued and the subject matter of the lawsuit. If you were served with papers that indicate that you are being sued or compelled to appear in a court in a different state or county, you may be able to challenge the service on the basis of jurisdiction or venue. State courts have jurisdiction only over people found within the same state.
File a special appearance or motion. A special appearance is a procedure that permits a person to appear in court to challenge jurisdiction without subjecting himself to the court's jurisdiction. Many other legal papers that are improperly served can be challenged by a motion in court.