Serving Court Papers on an Individual

Learn the important rules about proper service of process

By , J.D. · New York University School of Law

After the plaintiff files a claim with the small claims clerk, he or she must deliver a copy of the claim to each defendant. This is called service of process, and no lawsuit is complete without it. The reason you must serve the other side is obvious: Defendants in a case need to know about any claims against them and must be notified of the day, time, and place that they can show up to defend themselves.

Normally, papers must be served in the state where you filed your lawsuit. Assuming the person you want to sue resides or does business in your state, you can serve papers anyplace in the state. However, you can't sue someone in a Massachusetts court and serve papers on them in Oklahoma. An exception involves suits having to do with motor vehicle accidents or lawsuits against out-of-state owners of real estate located in-state. Many states allow out-of-state service on this type of claim. Your small claims court clerk will show you how this is handled in your state.

All defendants on the plaintiff's claim or all plaintiffs on the defendant's claim must be served. It is not enough to serve one defendant or plaintiff and assume that that person will tell the others. This is true even if the parties are married, live together, or do business together.

There are several ways to serve papers on individual defendants. All depend on your knowing where the defendant is. If you can't find the defendant personally and do not know where the person lives or works, you won't be able to complete service, and it probably makes little sense to file a lawsuit.

Personal Service

Personal service means that someone hands the defendant the relevant papers. You have various options regarding who performs this task. Of course, if you use someone who doesn't personally know the defendant, the server will need to be particularly careful to serve the right person. These are your options for who can serve the defendant.

  • Sheriff, marshal, or constable. All states allow personal service to be made by law officers, although not all officers will serve civil subpoenas. Using this method is often valuable for its sobering effect. The fee can be added to your judgment if you win.
  • Private process servers. Many states also allow service by private process servers, whom you will find listed in the yellow pages. Fees charged are usually based on how long the service takes.
  • Service by disinterested adult. Some states allow service by any person who is at least 18 years old, except the person bringing the suit. Any person means just that–a relative or a friend is fine. However, many states require that this person be approved by the court.

A mailbox isn't personal enough. No matter who serves the papers, if personal service is used, the claim and a summons must be handed to the defendant. You can't simply leave the paper at the defendant's job or home or in the mailbox. If the process server locates the right person, but the person refuses to take the paper, acts hostile, or attempts to run away, the process server should simply put the paper down and leave. Valid service has been accomplished. The process server should never try to use force to get a defendant to take any papers.

How to Find a Good Process Server

Unfortunately, sheriff's offices in some states are getting out of the process-serving business. This means that you may have to hire a private person or company. Some of these are truly fly-by-night–they've figured out that process serving is a quick way to make a buck. You may even see them cruising around the courthouse looking for business. To make sure you're dealing with a business that backs up its promises, do a little research first. One indicator of trustworthiness is how long the process server has been in business–ask to see a business license or look in the phone book for process servers who list the date their business was founded. You can also ask the small claims court clerk for a list of registered process servers. If you know any lawyers, you can ask them for a recommendation.

Certified Mail

In the majority of states, you can serve papers by sending them to the defendant via certified mail with a return receipt requested. In some states, service by certified (or registered) mail is one among several ways you may serve papers. Other states require you to try service by certified mail first, before any other method of service. Normally, the court clerk does the mailing for you and charges a small fee. This is recoverable if you win. The mail method is both cheap and easy, but in most states the defendant must sign for the letter for this type of service to be effective. (In a few states, service is accomplished even if a certified letter is rejected by the defendant.) Most businesses and many individuals routinely sign to accept their mail. However, some people never do, knowing instinctively, or perhaps from past experience, that nothing good ever comes by certified mail. The consensus in an informal survey of court clerks is that about 50% of court papers served by certified mail are accepted. If you try using the mail to serve your papers and fail, and you end up having to pay a process server, tell the judge about it as part of your presentation and chances are your costs will be added to the judgment.

Regular First-Class Mail

A minority of states, allow papers to be served by first-class mail. The states differ, however, on what you must do if the defendant doesn't answer your complaint within the time limit. Check with your court clerk to see if this method is available in your area.

Substituted Service (or "Nail and Mail")

It can be difficult to serve certain individuals. Some have developed their skill at avoiding process servers into a high art. In some states, avoiding service no longer works, as there is now a procedure that allows "substituted service" if you make "reasonable efforts" to serve a defendant and fail. Often the slang for this type of service is "nail and mail," because in several states, if you are unable to serve the defendant personally, you do not have to leave the claim with a live person. Instead, you can simply tack one copy to the defendant's door and mail the second copy.

In a typical state, substituted service works like this:

  • 1. Small claims papers may be served by an adult who is not named in the lawsuit by leaving a copy at the person's dwelling place in the presence of a competent member of the household who is at least age 18 (and who must be told what the papers are about) or at the person's workplace during normal business hours with the person in charge (who must be told what the papers are about).
  • 2. On the same day, a copy of the papers must also be mailed to the defendant by first-class mail.

Service is complete ten days after mailing. Be sure that all steps, including mailing the extra copy, are carried out by an adult who is not named in the lawsuit.

Serving Someone With a Post Office Box

If you know nothing more than the individual defendant's post office box, you'll need to get a street address in order to serve the person. To do this, you must give the post office a written statement saying that you need the address solely to serve legal papers in a pending lawsuit. This should work, but if it doesn't, refer the post office employee to the Post Office's Administrative Support Manual § 352.44e(2). There is no fee for the Post Office providing this information. 39 CFR § 265.6(d)(4)(ii).

Serving Someone in the Military

It is proper to serve someone who is on active duty in the armed forces. If the person shows up, fine. If not, however, you have a problem. Although you can usually get a default judgment against a properly served defendant who fails to show up, this is not true if the person you are suing is in the military (other than the reserves).

Default judgments cannot normally be taken against people on active duty in the armed forces, because Congress has given our military personnel special protections. To get a default judgment, you will probably have to file a statement under penalty of perjury that the defendant is not in the military. This declaration is available from the clerk. Clerks almost always accept a Declaration of Nonmilitary Service signed by the plaintiff, as long as the plaintiff reasonably believes that the defendant is not on active duty. This constitutes a lenient interpretation of the law by clerks, but no one seems to be complaining.

Proof of Service

If you have asked the court clerk to serve your papers by certified mail, you need do nothing else. The court clerk sends out the certified mail for you, and the signed post office receipt comes back directly to the clerk if service is accomplished. It's as simple as that.

However, a court has no way of knowing whether or not papers have been successfully filed by personal service, substituted service, or first-class mail unless you tell them. So, you are required to do so. Notification is accomplished by filing a form known as a Proof of Service with the court clerk after the service has been made. The Proof of Service form must be signed by the person actually making the service. A Proof of Service is used both by the plaintiff and by the defendant if the defendant files a defendant's claim. It must be returned to the clerk's office.