In almost all types of civil cases, a petition or complaint must first be filed with the court. A copy of the petition or complaint must then be served on the opposing party. From that point on in the case, a party who files anything with the court must serve papers on the opposing party letting them know what was filed. In what manner a person may serve papers will vary by jurisdiction. There are, however, a few commonly accepted ways to serve papers. Personal service, service by the civil sheriff or by a process server, and certified mail are the most common methods used to serve papers, though service by publication may be used under certain circumstances.
Personal service is allowable under the civil procedures rules of many jurisdictions. The rules regarding how personal service may be accomplished and who may serve papers via personal service vary. In most cases, the person serving the papers must be over the age of 18 and may not be involved in the litigation. In some jurisdictions, the papers must be handed to the party, while in others, they may be left with another adult or even tacked to the door. The person who serves the papers must generally sign an affidavit swearing that the papers were delivered.
Service may also be accomplished by the civil sheriff or a licensed process server. In many locations, the civil sheriff's office has a unit designated for service of legal papers and, for a small fee, they will personally deliver the papers and sign the required affidavit assuring the court that they were delivered. A process server is someone who may or may not need to be licensed to accomplish service of legal papers. There is usually a fee involved when a process server must serve the paperwork on one of the parties to the litigation.
Certified mail is also acceptable under the rules of some court systems. When certified mail is allowed, the person serving the papers must usually present the return receipt to the court to assure that service was accomplished. Some courts request that the return receipt be sent directly to the court itself.
In some cases, service may be accomplished by publication. Some court paperwork, such as a notice of foreclosure or notice of name change, are actually required to be published in a local newspaper. In addition, when a plaintiff does not know the whereabouts of a respondent, then he or she may be allowed to serve him or her by publication. In a divorce, for instance, if the location of the spouse is unknown, and diligent efforts to locate him or her are unfruitful, then notice of the divorce may be published in a local newspaper if the local rules allow.