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What Does It Mean to Serve Papers?

Leigia Rosales
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Leigia Rosales
By Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers. Her ability to understand complex topics and communicate them effectively makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By Reminiscence — On Jul 19, 2014

I've heard that a person actually has to make contact with the papers before it considered a legal process serving, but I can't believe it's true. I was served papers to be a witness in a friend's civil trial one time, and we all knew it was going to happen. He had to find someone else willing to walk over to my table at the restaurant and serve those papers.

I remember seeing news stories when I was a kid where a famous celebrity was walking into a courtroom or restaurant or studio and people were throwing pieces of paper at them. They made a point of letting them fall to the ground. My mom said those were legal court papers, and the celebrity couldn't actually be seen touching them.

By RocketLanch8 — On Jul 18, 2014

Process server is another job I don't think I'd want. Serving court or divorce papers to people who clearly don't want to receive them sounds dangerous to me. I saw a reality show that followed a process server through his regular day and he was constantly under attack. He had to be really sneaky sometimes to get people to accept the papers.

Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she...
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