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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 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).
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.
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.