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How to Serve Someone: A Comprehensive Guide

July 19, 2023

Serving someone (also known as process serving) involves delivering legal and court documents to individuals involved in a legal dispute. The person serving these documents acts as a messenger, officially notifying people about their involvement in a court case.

As nationwide and international process servers, one question we get asked frequently as is “how do you serve someone”?

Whether you’re a legal professional, a private individual tasked with this duty, or simply curious about the process, this guide will provide a step-by-step breakdown on how to serve someone correctly.

What is Process Serving?

Before diving into the step by step process of how to serve someone, let’s first define the concept of process serving.

Process serving ensures that individuals involved in legal proceedings are notified about it, allowing them to respond and defend themselves accordingly. It’s a critical component of the justice system and must be carried out accurately and according to the law to maintain the integrity of any legal case.

Steps Required To Serve Someone

Understanding how to serve someone legally is an important part of ensuring that court proceedings are valid and can move the plaintiff’s claim forward. The process includes identifying the parties involved, acquiring the necessary court documents, choosing the method of service, executing the service, and providing proof of service.

Full breakdown below:

1. Identifying the Parties Involved

The very first thing that needs to happen is identifying the person or entity to be served. This person is commonly referred to as the “defendant” or “respondent”. You’ll need to have as much demographic information about this party as possible, including the full name, address, place of employment, and a detailed physical description.

In our experience, sources like phone books or online directories can help with this process. Information about a business entity can often be obtained through the Secretary of State or the Attorney General’s Office.

2. Acquiring the Necessary Documents

Next, you’ll need to acquire the legal documents or court papers to be served. These might include summonses, complaints, subpoenas, writs, or other court notices. These documents can be acquired from the court clerk, the small claims court clerk, or the attorney handling the case. Make copies of all papers to be served and keep the original documents for your records.

3. Choosing the Method of Service

Different jurisdictions have different rules about acceptable methods of service. In California, The most common methods include personal service, where a registered process server personally hands over the court papers to the defendant. If personal service isn’t possible, you may resort to substituted service, which involves leaving the papers with a responsible adult at the defendant’s retence or workplace and subsequently mailing them a copy. If both personal and substituted service fail, service by publication or service by certified mail may be permitted by the court.

Personal Service: The most preferred method, where a professional process server or a registered process server personally hands over the legal papers to the defendant.

Substituted Service: If after due diligence personal service isn’t possible, substituted service may be used. Here, the process server leaves the documents with a competent member of the household or a person in charge at the defendant’s place of work.

Service by Mail: This involves sending the court papers via first-class mail or certified mail, with a return receipt requested. Once the certified mail receipt is returned, it acts as a proof of service.

Service by Publication: If the defendant is avoiding service or can’t be located, the court may allow service by publication in a local newspaper.

4. Executing the Service

Serving court papers requires professionalism. If you’re serving personally, approach the defendant, identify yourself, explain the reason for your visit, and hand over the documents. If the person lives in a different state, you’ll need to follow the service rules of that state. Alternatively, you could hire a process server in that state to personally serve them the papers.

In case of a business, serve the papers during normal business hours to an agent authorized to accept service, like a general partner in a limited partnership or a single owner in a single owner business.

Remember that your job is to deliver the documents, not to engage in disputes. Be prepared for potential hostility and remember to remain calm and professional.

5. Proving Service

After serving the legal papers, you’ll need to provide proof of service to the court. This can be accomplished by filling out a proof of service form, also known as an Affidavit of Service, detailing when, where, and to whom the papers were served. It’s important to carefully fill out this form and have it notarized.

Return the proof of service form to the court clerk’s office where the case was filed. If you’re serving for a small claims court, return it to city clerk or the small claims court clerk’s office. Always keep a copy for your records.

Note: If you’re unable to serve the papers personally, you can request the court for a substitute service or service by publication. For substituted service, you can leave the papers with a responsible adult at the party’s home or the party’s workplace. For service by publication, the court order will specify in which newspaper to publish and for how long.

Remember, to uphold the legal process, the papers must be properly served to give the defendant formal notice and a chance to respond. The process of serving someone is often straightforward, but it can also be complex. If you’re unsure, consider hiring a professional process server or consult with a legal professional. The failure to serve papers correctly can result in delays in your case, or even dismissal, so it’s important to get it right.

Challenges in Serving Someone

The process of serving legal papers isn’t always straightforward and can come with numerous challenges. From locating the defendant to dealing with adverse reactions, understanding jurisdictional nuances, and establishing irrefutable proof of service, each step can present its unique difficulties.

The following list outlines these potential hurdles and offers helpful tips to navigate them effectively:

  1. Locating the Party: Finding the person who needs to be served can sometimes be challenging, especially if they’re intentionally avoiding service or have moved without leaving forwarding details.
  2. Hostile Reaction: Some people may react negatively when being served, leading to potentially hostile or uncomfortable situations.
  3. Understanding Jurisdiction Rules: Different jurisdictions have different rules about how to serve someone. Not understanding these rules could lead to invalid service and case delays.
  4. Timeliness: Legal proceedings are often time-sensitive. If service is delayed, the entire case could be delayed, or rights could be lost.
  5. Providing Accurate Proof of Service: If the proof of service isn’t completed correctly or returned to the correct location (like the court clerk’s office), the service might be deemed invalid.

Tips for Serving Someone

Process serving can be a challenging job, especially if the defendant is evading service. Here are some tips and tricks of the trade:

  1. Hire a Professional: If you’re finding it challenging to serve court papers, consider hiring a professional process server. They have experience in handling difficult situations and are skilled at locating hard-to-find individuals.
  2. Be Persistent: Sometimes, it takes several attempts to serve someone. Don’t give up after the first try. Be persistent and try at different times of the day or different days of the week.
  3. Be Respectful: Always approach the individual with respect. You are there to do a job, not to pass judgment. Remember, you’re not the cause of their legal issues.
  4. Keep Detailed Records: Keep detailed notes of your attempts to serve the papers. Record the date, time, and location of each attempt, as well as the result. This documentation can be important if the defendant claims they were not properly served.
  5. Know the Laws: Familiarize yourself with the laws and rules about serving papers in your jurisdiction. If necessary, consult with a lawyer or legal professional to ensure you’re following the appropriate procedures.
  6. Certified Mail: When using mail service, always send documents via certified mail, and request a return receipt. This provides proof that the documents were sent and received.
  7. Safety First: If you encounter a hostile situation, prioritize your safety. Do not engage in arguments or physical confrontations. If necessary, leave and return later with law enforcement.

Getting Started

Process serving plays an integral role in the justice system, facilitating fair and transparent legal proceedings by ensuring all parties are adequately informed. Though the process may seem daunting, understanding the steps and approaches can make it manageable and efficient.

Remember that laws vary by state and country, so always check your local regulations or consult with a legal professional to ensure you’re conducting service correctly. Your diligence and integrity in this process uphold the very principles of justice it is designed to protect.

Need to serve someone with court papers? On-Call Legal is here to help. With our nationwide service of process, we take the stress out of serving legal papers. We understand the challenges you may encounter and have the professional expertise to ensure the service is done correctly and efficiently. Contact On-Call Legal today and let us handle the complexities of serving papers for you, so you can focus on what matters most – your case. Call us now for a seamless, professional service that spans across the nation!

On-demand legal services with arranging services from eFiling to organizing and preparing your subpoena for records and/or personal appearance and much more.