In order to ensure due process, any time a lawsuit is initiated, everyone involved in the process must be informed at the proper time and in the proper way. This must be done using a formal court summons delivered by a process server in a legal manner. The manner of service can get complicated if the summons is being delivered between jurisdictions since laws vary from state to state. It’s important to understand what rules apply to make sure the court case can proceed as intended.
What Is a Court Summons?
A court summons is a legal document that notifies an individual that his presence is required in court. It is a notification that legal action is being taken that involves the individual either as a plaintiff, a witness or a defendant. The court summons should contain information regarding the legal process that is underway and should inform the individual of the purpose regarding the summons.
Read More: What Happens If a Court Date Is Set & You Never Received a Summons?
What Should a Summons Contain?
The summons document should contain:
- The name and type of the court issuing the summons. This isn’t always the court that has jurisdiction over the individual. If the relevant event happened in another country or state, that court may have issued the summons.
- The names of the individuals involved in the court case, including the plaintiff, the person filing the suit who is usually the originator of the legal action, and the defendant, the person replying who is usually the person accused of the action.
- Information on what the case is about, which should include the reason the individual is being summoned.
- The date on which the court expects a response and the method the individual should use to make his response.
Types of Summonses
The most common reasons for someone to be served with a court summons are to appear as a witness in an upcoming or ongoing court case or that the individual is being sued in a court of law. Usually, court summonses fall into these categories:
- Jury duty: This is a summons to appear in court to be evaluated for jury duty. This type of summons is usually sent by mail. It requires the individual to show up at a specific time to be interviewed for a seat on a jury.
- Citation summons: This type of court summons appears on citations such as a traffic ticket where the individual is required to appear in court to defend against the citation. They are used for minor misdemeanors like traffic or parking infractions. While the individual can appear in court to defend themselves against the citation, often there is an option to plead guilty by paying a fee, eliminating the need for a court appearance.
- Civil summons: This summons is delivered with a complaint against the individual in civil court. It requires that the individual being served appears in court on a certain date to hear the charges against him and to appear at trial.
- Action summons: These are legal papers served to the individual that act as notice for legal proceedings. They are served in such cases as divorce, custody, evictions and restraining orders. They must be legally served to ensure that the individual has been notified of the upcoming actions against them.
Serving Papers Out of State
Occasionally, a court case requires papers to be served to an individual in a different state. Because state laws regarding court summonses and process servers vary, there are extra steps required to be sure due process occurs when delivering an out-of state summons. Depending on the state, some cases may need to be filed in the state where the individual lives.
Additionally, states have different rules regarding who may act as process servers, whether they must request permission from a legal individual before serving, and what days and times they can serve the papers. Before starting the process, be sure to understand the laws and regulations in both the originating state and the state of the individual to be served.
It’s best to get professional legal advice to make sure everything is correct when serving an out-of-state defendant; mishandling the service of papers can be a liability in a court case.
Finding the Right Process Server
Once the legal path forward is clear, it’s time to find a process server that operates in the area where the individual to be served lives and works. Local process service agencies usually have contacts in other states and can recommend agencies that have proven to be reliable and effective.
Since avoidance and refusal are unfortunately common responses to a court summons, it’s important to provide a thorough summary of the individual being served, including a current photo, physical description, addresses for home and work, and any other important information that can help ensure the success of delivery.
Using Certified Mail for Interstate Service
In some states, court papers can be served using certified mail. The record of receipt will be the legal document proving that the papers were delivered. If a process server is used, she will do her due diligence to ensure the papers are properly served and will provide the documentation. This documented record of service becomes a formal part of the court record, proving that papers have been served out of state.
Serving Papers to Multiple States
Serving court papers to individuals in multiple states follows the same process: obtaining an understanding of the service laws for that state; contacting a qualified process server who can deliver the court summons; and making sure that the actions follow all of the laws required in each particular state.
What Is a Process Server?
The process server is the person responsible for making sure the types of summonses are properly served on the individual in question. They are responsible for delivering these documents and for providing proof that the documents were received by the individual in question, often requiring external certification. Serving these papers properly is incredibly important to an ongoing court case – if the papers are served improperly or illegally, the entire case can be dismissed.
Process servers exist because under federal law, all parties must be notified if and when legal actions are taken against them. This is why most court summons and other documents are normally served to the individual in person_. After confirming that the papers have been received – ideally by signature, but if the individual resists, other methods may be assumed to be legal deliver_y – the process server then confirms that the papers have been served, often in a document requiring notarization.
In general, anyone over the age of 18 with no involvement in the case can be a process server. Depending on the state, process servers may be required to be licensed and registered to ensure that she clearly understands the specific laws within her state and the methods of delivery that are approved, as well as the process taken to notarize and file these papers properly.
Process Service Laws Across States
Process servers don’t necessarily have an easy job. Often, individuals served with papers may react poorly, becoming angry, defensive and sometimes threatening. These individuals may refuse to be served, often attempting to block the process server from their home and property. While service laws vary from state to state, generally, process servers may:
- Approach the home: In most states, process servers will not be accused of trespassing for approaching an individual in their home or on their land to personally serve papers.
- Use different approaches: If an individual will not respond at his home, the process server is allowed to approach him at his workplace, in general public areas or at the homes of friends and family in order to deliver the papers.
- Make multiple attempts: Most process service laws allow at least three attempts to be made in person to deliver the court summons.
- Not hand over the papers: Process servers may announce their intentions and drop the papers on the ground in front of the individual or place them on a nearby table or chair. As long as they inform the individual she is being served, the papers are considered delivered, even if the individual does not physically touch them.
- Serve papers by mail: If the individual has absolutely made themselves scarce to the process server, the server may apply for permission to serve the papers by mail. Sometimes certified mail is required, while in other cases first-class mail will suffice.
- Leave papers with a competent adult: In many states the process server is allowed to leave papers with a competent adult over the age of 18 if the person to be served is unable to be reached. The expectation is that this adult substitute is close to the individual (ideally, living in the same household) and is expected to deliver the papers to the individual.
- Serve papers by posting: If the individual absolutely refuses to be served, the court will eventually serve the papers by publication. The method varies by state, but this last resort counts as legal service even if the individual has personally refused.
Service of Process Violations
Given the understanding that serving papers can be incredibly difficult, keep in mind the things process servers are not allowed to do, most of which coincide with federal and state laws about general criminal actions:
- Interfere with mailboxes: It’s a crime to interfere with another person’s mail, and while views on this vary from state to state, in general the process server should not touch the person's mailbox or anything related to the U.S. Postal Service.
- False pretenses: A process server is not a law enforcement official and shouldn’t pretend to be one in order to deliver documents. Any sort of false name or identity is a deception and is not allowed.
- Trespassing: Although most states protect process servers with regards to trespassing, some states do not. It’s important to know the different state laws to understand what protections and risks are in place.
- Use force: Any use of threats, force or violence to coerce an individual into taking papers is illegal.
- Break into the home: The process server may not break into the home to leave the papers in an obvious place. Again, all criminal acts are still criminal even when serving court papers.
Normally, process servers are given five to seven days to deliver a court summons. Certain conditions can require rush service within a number of days. Even if the individual avoids service within that time period, that will not exempt her from the court charges. Many individuals believe they can avoid a court case by avoiding the papers, since due process requires the papers to be served. However, the court will eventually serve the papers in a way that can’t be ignored, and the individual can be further charged if obstruction of justice has occurred.
Danielle Smyth is a writer and content marketer from upstate New York. She holds a Master of Science in Publishing from Pace University. Her experience includes years of work in the insurance, workers compensation, disability, and background investigation fields. In addition to being the content writer and social media manager for Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, she has written on legal topics for a number of other clients. She owns her own content marketing agency, Wordsmyth Creative Content Marketing (www.wordsmythcontent.com) and enjoys writing legal articles and blogs for clients in related industries.