What are the Rules Governing Summons Delivery?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The rules concerning summons delivery can vary from one jurisdiction to another, so this article should only be considered a general overview. In order to understand the legal processes involved in a summons delivery, it may be helpful to create a hypothetical civil lawsuit situation. John Smith hired Joe Brown, a professional photographer, to take photographs at his wedding. In Smith's opinion, the photographs taken by Mr. Brown were completely unacceptable and he requested a full refund of the money received by Joe Brown. Mr. Brown refused to refund any money, stating that the pictures were of professional quality and he fulfilled his part of the contract. John Smith decided to pursue a civil lawsuit against Joe Brown in order to compel him to refund the money. This would be the very first steps in a civil trial, with the plaintiff John Smith filing a legal complaint in civil court against the defendant Joe Brown.

A summons should be delivered in an envelope that does not indicate its contents are legal documents.
A summons should be delivered in an envelope that does not indicate its contents are legal documents.

A civil lawsuit only begins with the proper and legal delivery of a court-drafted summons, however. A plaintiff or his attorney can file the complaint, but the court has an obligation to deliver a summons which informs the recipient of the complaint against him or her and the amount of time he or she has to register an official answer. A summons can only be legally delivered by a recognized officer of the court, often a deputy sheriff or US marshal, or by a courier authorized to deliver legal documents. The plaintiff in a civil lawsuit may have to retain the services of a professional courier service in order to have the summons delivered physically to the defendant(s).

A U.S. Marshal often is responsible for delivering a summons.
A U.S. Marshal often is responsible for delivering a summons.

The court officer or courier can only deliver a summons to the defendant's "usual place of abode" or his or her regular place of employment. This means the authorized agent should find the defendant's last known legal address and attempt to deliver the envelope containing the summons to that specific person. The envelope itself should not contain any identifiers which would indicate it was a legal document issued by a court. During a legal summons delivery, it is not always necessary that the courier ask for or receive a signature from the defendant to prove receipt. In the hypothetical case, Joe Brown may answer the door personally and receive the summons from the courier directly. The courier can then inform Mr. Brown that he has been served with a summons to appear in civil court.

One less reliable method of serving a summons is by sending it in the mail.
One less reliable method of serving a summons is by sending it in the mail.

If Mr. Brown does not answer the door at his home, the officer or courier can also leave the summons with another adult resident who appears responsible. Since the summons does not contain any legal identifiers, other recipients would not be aware of its contents. The successful delivery of the summons to Mr. Brown's residence would begin the legal clock on the lawsuit. Mr. Brown would have a specified number of days, generally 20 to 30, to provide a response or answer to the complaint filed against him. The summons itself would not necessarily specify a court date, but it would inform the defendant that a lawsuit against him does exist.

If the courier fails to deliver the summons to Mr. Brown at his legal residence, he or she may attempt another summons delivery at Mr. Brown's regular place of employment. Again, the envelope should not contain any identifiers which would reveal the legal nature of its contents. If Mr. Brown could not be located at his photography studio, the courier could attempt another delivery at another time. In some jurisdictions, a process server can claim a legal summons delivery by leaving a copy of the summons at the defendant's residence and mailing a copy to the defendant's legal address. This is called "nail and mail" in the legal profession, but the practice is not universally recognized as a proper delivery method. The courier should demonstrate "due diligence" by attempting several deliveries at different hours of the day before resorting to any "nail and mail" tactics.

Once a legal summons delivery has taken place, the officer or courier should provide proof to the court that the defendant did in fact receive the summons himself or herself, or was in a position to receive it through a third party. The courier has generally completed his or her legal obligations to the court once the summons and defendant are in the same space at the same time.

Legal summons are often delivered by a sheriff or deputy.
Legal summons are often delivered by a sheriff or deputy.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


What happens if the court does not have an address, the person is not employed and has a PO box in another state? How does a summons get delivered?


They don't seem to know how to use a doorbell. Last Friday night at 10:30, a man was pounding on my bedroom window which was open, to deliver a summons. Scared the heck out of us!


I filed a complaint against a company with the BBB. I received a Summons and Complaint that the company had sent to the BBB, indicating they had filed a small claims case against me. It had a court date on it. I went to the court on the date, and they had no record of this Summons being filed. What should I do?


There's so many unemployed people. Maybe they can do jury duty as a job.


Is there a time frame that they are allowed to give you summons? By this I mean in Arizona, they are supposed to give it to you with in 120 days of it being approved, so if they go over the date (120 day mark) can that invalidate it? If it does, is there a motion that you should use in responding to your summons due to the tardiness of them?


@anon154371: I'm sure the next time they come back for an instance like this they will have a warrant, and the door will come down. I also live in MD, and I've seen it happen, and thank the Lord not at my house. Hope everything worked out well for you.


Some man did the same thing, pounding on my door. He scared me and I didn't answer the door. He was in normal street clothes. He kept yelling officer of the court? Neither I nor my boyfriend have anything "bad" we would be expecting, but I was still scared to open the door. You never know who people are, and plus, I never open my door to strangers, regardless. We both even looked up our names under civil records for our state superior court and found nothing for either of us. I'm sure this man will be back, but I would really like to know some information beforehand.

I had a roommate at a previous location who got into some legal issues, but I do not speak to this person. Under any circumstances could they subpoena me to testify for or against him? Please help.


@anon154371 - It is frightening to be served this way but they’re just doing their job. Avoiding a summons complaint only escalates the problem it won’t make the matter go away.

By the way, what makes you think it was a summons that blew away in the wind? Are you in some kind of trouble? Were you expecting one? What if it was a notice that you won the sweepstakes?


a person came to my home in regular clothes and knocked on my door screaming sheriff open the door. i was scared to death. as i stood frozen in my living room the person climbed up to my door and peered through the glass in the upper part of my front door and hollered open the door. he then proceeded to the left side of my home where there is a porch and started screaming open the door right now this is the sheriff.

i did not open my door for fear of who he really was. he then left a summons on my door which blew away in the wind to someone else's yard. this is in prince Georges county md

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