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What Does "Return of Service" Mean?

Toni Henthorn
Toni Henthorn

Service of process is the way in which courts and plaintiffs legally notify defendants or respondents of impending proceedings before a court or other administrative entity. Typically, a process server hand delivers court documents and a summons to the defendant at his home or place of business. Rule 4 of the United States Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Part 6 of the United Kingdom Civil Procedure Rules require appropriate service on a defendant to guarantee his right to due process. Consequentially, process servers must file a return of service with the court once they have delivered the court documents to the respondent, which records the time and place of service and the person to whom service was given. The return of service provides irrefutable evidence in court that proper service took place within a required deadline and in accordance with state guidelines.

Correct and timely service of process can play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of court proceedings. Once a defendant receives a summons from a process server, the court can grant a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff if the defendant fails to respond or participate. If, however, the process has not been filed, the defendant can claim that he was not served. Without proof of service that is afforded by the return of service, the defendant will prevail, since he has a constitutional right to due process under the law. In some states, process servers electronically record their efforts to present papers through wireless transmissions or global position satellite (GPS) transmissions.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Personal, direct service to the named party on a complaint or summons and timely filing of a return of service are almost universally required when the party is an individual. Business entities generally have registered agents, to whom service of documents can be delivered. For parties in a different state or country, most jurisdictions allow service by registered mail. Service to defendants in countries outside of the court jurisdiction must conform to regulations set forth in the Hague Service Convention. When the location of a defendant is unknown, most courts permit service through publication in a newspaper.

Two amendments to the United States Constitution, the fifth and the 14th, prevent the government from taking a citizen’s “life, liberty or property” without due process. The framers of the Constitution wanted to avoid scenarios that had arisen in the past, where magistrates would suddenly and without warning seize property and throw people into jail until they paid their debts. In recognition of this significant duty of notification, jurisdictions mandate training and licensure of all individuals who want to be process servers. After a training course is completed, applicants must take written or oral tests to prove competency in the proper procedures for service of process and return of service.

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