How to Serve Someone With Legal Papers

By Beverly Bird
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A judge can only make decisions in a civil lawsuit if the party you’re suing knows he’s being sued. He has a right to defend himself, so you must serve him with a copy of your initial complaint or petition and all additional filings as well. How you should do this depends on your state’s laws, so check with the court clerk at the time you file your lawsuit to find out what the procedure is in your jurisdiction.

Enlist Help of Third Party

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When you open a lawsuit, most states require that a copy of the court documents be hand delivered to the defendant by a disinterested third party -- an adult who has no involvement in the case. This is known as personal service. You can ask a friend or family member to do it, but you might do better with a professional if the person you’re suing really doesn’t want to be served. Depending on the nature of your lawsuit, the county sheriff or constable might handle service for you for a fee. You can also hire a private process server in many states. Most states will not allow you to personally deliver the papers to the defendant.

Mail Documents

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With some types of lawsuits, and depending on how far along you are in your case, you may be able to mail the documents to the defendant. This is typical in small claims suits and for additional paperwork filed after you begin your lawsuit. As with personal service, you usually can’t do this yourself. You must ask someone else to physically place the papers in the mail for you. In some states, the court clerk will take care of mailing the documents for you for a small fee. You may have to send them by certified mail, return receipt requested, depending on your state’s rules. If the defendant is willing to accept the papers, some states allow him to voluntarily sign an acknowledgment of service, as sometimes happens in divorce actions.

Try Alternate Means of Service

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If the party you’ve sued is really determined not to be found, or if you don’t know where he’s currently living or working, some states allow substituted service for certain types of lawsuits. The sheriff or a private process server must have tried repeatedly to give the defendant the papers, but to no avail. The court might then give the server permission to leave the documents with any adult at the party’s residence or place of employment. If he leaves them at a business, he must do so with a boss or supervisor. The server must also follow up by mailing a copy of the legal papers to the same address where he delivered them. The court might also give you permission to serve by publication, particularly in a divorce matter if you don’t know where your ex is. This involves posting notice of the lawsuit in a local newspaper of a certain circulation for a period of time set by state law. Permission for this method of service usually hinges on you having made diligent attempts to find him and filing an affidavit with the court explaining your efforts.

File Proof With Court

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Service isn’t complete until you file proof with the court. In most states, this involves completing, signing and filing a proof of service form. If you used the sheriff or a private process server, these individuals must usually sign the proof of service, not you. If the defendant voluntarily signed for receipt of the papers, you can file the acknowledgment of service as proof.

About the Author

Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.

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