What is Involved in Serving a Summons?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 24 February 2020
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The process for serving a summons differs by jurisdiction and often by the type of summons served. In most cases, a plaintiff in a case must first determine the best or most appropriate method of serving a summons, and if necessary pay for a professional summons service or a law-enforcement agency to physically serve the defendant. Different ways of serving a summons include postal mail, personal service, and service by publication. Each method is very different and requires that certain steps be taken in order to establish that the service is legitimate.

In many places, the primary way of serving a summons is through personal service. This means that one person must physically deliver a summons to another person. Some jurisdictions restrict who can serve another person with court papers, and these restrictions may vary by the type of case. Some areas allow any adult more than the age of 18 to serve papers, provided that they are not involved with the case. Other jurisdictions are far stricter, permitting only law enforcement to serve a summons. A middle ground exists in some areas that permits private detectives and special process servers, neither of whom have law-enforcement authority, to serve defendants with a court summons.


Another method of serving a summons is by mail. Some places do not permit mail service, and those that do often require plaintiffs to take several steps to ensure the defendant receives the summons. This usually includes sending a letter through the postal mail by some trackable method. In the United States, this requires that the letter be sent by certified or registered mail so that the plaintiff keeps a record of the mailing. The defendant must sign for the letter, providing a record showing that service was made.

In some cases, it becomes very difficult to track down the defendant or to get the defendant to sign an acknowledgment that she was served with papers. In such cases, the process server may be at liberty to leave the summons at or around the residence or workplace of the defendant. The law may then require the server to file an affidavit with the court stating that service was attempted.

If it is impossible to locate the defendant, a plaintiff may be able to serve a defendant with notice through a classified ad in a local newspaper. This is the method of last resort, and many judges require a plaintiff to offer a full explanation of all her efforts to locate the defendant before the judge will permit service by publication. The plaintiff will run an ad for a certain number of weeks in the legal notices section of a newspaper, and the ad will instruct the defendant to take certain steps, such as contacting the court, in order to protect his rights. Once the ad has run for a specific time period, the defendant has been served, and the legal case can proceed with or without him.


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