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What is a Subpoena?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Subpoena translates to "under punishment" in Latin. It is an order from a court for a person to appear at a trial under punishment for failure to appear. If the person given a subpoena does not appear, some courts have the discretion to find the person in contempt of court and either order the person’s arrest or issue fines accordingly.

The term subpoena is primarily used in US courts. The preferred term in the UK is now Witness Summons, at least in civil trials. In either country, the subpoena is usually written by the court clerk after he or she has been given a list of witnesses for a trial. The court clerk then writes out, usually in a form letter, a request for the witness’ presence at a specific date and time for testimony.

When the testimony has lagged or the trial has been delayed, those receiving a subpoena still must appear at the specified date and time. The witness may then be given another date and time to appear, or may have to wait several hours or days to deliver testimony. If one has a time conflict of a serious nature, contacting the court or the attorneys may help change the subpoena date to a better time. In some cases, testimony has been given over long distances, or has taken place in locations other than the court, such as hospitals. In these cases, both the defense and prosecuting lawyer must be present so that fair examination and cross-examination can both take place.

When a subpoena is issued, it is usually the responsibility of the attorney to deliver it. In criminal cases for example, the defense lawyer will deliver subpoenas to any witnesses who might help prove innocence. The prosecuting attorney will deliver subpoenas to those who can help prove the guilt of the accused.

As well, in divorce or child custody hearings, a subpoena can be issued to one of the spouses. Failure to appear in a child custody trial is tantamount to giving up custody of one’s child. Failure to appear in a divorce proceeding tends to mean the divorce is uncontested and may be granted immediately. Financial or custodial arrangements after the divorce usually will favor the appearing spouse.

The US Congress is empowered to send subpoenas when testimony is required in a congressional investigation. The US Congress, like the federal and state courts, can fine people who ignore a summons to testify. A person failing to appear is said to be in contempt of congress.

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.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon937026 — On Mar 03, 2014

What happens if a subpoena was sent late (possibly on purpose)? The subpoena was issued on the 21st of February but was postmarked the 27th which means they sent it the 27th. The trial was on the 28th of February in the morning which means that the subpoena would not arrive until the afternoon of the 28th which means they held the trial without me and there was no way for me to even know.

By anon350845 — On Oct 08, 2013

Can anyone here in the Philippines be given a summons even if he is out of the country? What if the summons is demanding to give a counter affidavit within 15 days, and the person cannot appear and cannot even submit any affidavit? He did not know about the summons since the summons for him was accepted and given to his sister, Can that person still be subjected or still obligated to answer that summons?

By Attorneys — On Jun 24, 2013

The term subpoena is latin for under penalty, which is what will happen to you if you don't comply with the subpoena. The subpoena is simply a document that is used to direct a person to appear at a certain place and time to participate in a legal proceeding. Sometimes you are required to bring documents or other information and almost always you are required to give testimony under oath.

By amypollick — On Jun 04, 2013

@fire658: I am not an attorney, but I would call the clerk's office from where the subpoena was issued, explain the situation and ask whether my presence was required.

It's possible you could argue the subpoena was invalid on that grounds, but I don't imagine a judge would go along with it. Clearly, it's a subpoena. I'd call the clerk's office for clarification.

By fire658 — On Jun 04, 2013

I was served with a subpoena, but the the "order to appear" box was not checked. Does this result in the subpoena being invalid due to this error in the person filing it? Do I still have to appear for the hearing,or can I use that as an argument? I need an answer as soon as possible.

By anon328106 — On Apr 01, 2013

My husband is going to court to testify with three doctors, and assisted living staff of three against his father who has Alzheimer's.

His father is in denial about his condition and is fighting the case. My husband's cousin was also supposed to be a witness to his condition that she witnessed when she and her husband were in Puerto Rico. My husband had to subpoena her and she is suppose to be in court in nine days. She called my husband tonight and said that she was not aware, that she never received a subpoena, and that she is on a vacation trip in her RV on her way from Arizona to California.

She is lying, of course, about the acknowledgement of the subpoena because Ray's other cousin said that she told her. She is really indirectly refusing to appear in court. If she said she knew nothing about this, what can be done about the subpoena? It went out from the lawyer over three weeks ago. What can be done about this situation? We really need her to be there. What can we do?

By Annabella67 — On Feb 12, 2013

I was forced to quit college because the college wouldn't answer my phone calls nor would they talk to me in person about the classes they switched because of a stalker issue I had. And they wouldn't take my payments at all.

I transferred to another college then left the state for another school. I was never told or contacted about a subpoena. Now I get a letter sent from my previous address from back in December saying I missed the court date, but was scheduled for one three days from now and I have no way of getting back home in that short amount of time. I have no clue what to do from here.

By anon303284 — On Nov 13, 2012

How much notice is required for a server to serve you before the court date? Can they serve you within 24 hours of the court date? I am just a small witness in a custody battle.

By anon241349 — On Jan 18, 2012

My husband has been implicated in a criminal case. Can they subpoena me to testify against him? What if we are legally separated, can they subpoena me? We live in CA. Thanks.

By anon214204 — On Sep 14, 2011

How much are witness fees and mileage fees in Virginia in a civil case? I have been subpoenaed but don't know what to expect in the way of fees for me?

By granger — On Sep 07, 2011

My brother's ex wife has filed a petition in Florida (where she lives) to stop paying child support to my brother who lives in Oregon with his 12 year old daughter. He responded "pro se" and the Seminole County court ruled that both parties (minus the child) must appear before a mediator in 21 days in Florida, and affidavits must be filed with the court and mediator 14 days before the hearing (i.e. seven days from notice).

My brother is indigent and a single parent, and he cannot afford any travel. He cannot leave his child alone or remove her from school for travel for possibly an extended time without damaging her education. How can he "attend" via telephone or not attend at all? Can he grant me power of attorney to stand for him? the order specifically says "both parties must attend."

By anon174485 — On May 10, 2011

My cousin is in the process of trying to get her son back. She has asked me to write a letter about what I knew at the time her child was taken away as well as how she is today with her second child. If I write this letter, will the court possibly have me testify in court?

By anon164683 — On Apr 02, 2011

what if I didn't live at the place the server said where she hand delivered documents? She said I signed for them but I moved about a year before out of that apartment, so I never knew about the court appointment and for the past 11 years I have had my license suspended and this insurance company wants 40,000 for an accident they still know nothing about. The dmv says I have an alias and i have never used any other last name than my name i was born with. My life has been nothing but a hardship, because of something i still know nothing about.

By anon144105 — On Jan 18, 2011

i found out i had court yesterday for custody and didn't find out until today. i never had a subpoena given to me to go to court. they had an old work address for me. can I be held in contempt of court. this happened in Virginia.

By amypollick — On Jan 11, 2011

@anon141399: If you are in the United States, contact the local newspaper. Arrest reports are public record, and any person can walk into the police station and request to see an arrest report. Usually, only the first page, with the perp's name is available, but it is a matter of public record.

A reporter can file a public records request for the guy's report and if denied, can take the PD to court over it. This really works. And, if the PD still refuses to hand over the report, then the journalist has a very nice story about cover-ups and corruption in the PD.

Be warned. Whatever you do, do *not* call and ask to speak with "the investigative reporter." There is no such thing, except on television. It also makes you sound like a loony-tune. Ask to speak to the reporter who covers the police department, or crime reporter. Don't just spill your guts over the phone, either, and don't go all black ops "you can't use my name." The reporter will politely say he or she is not interested. Ask to make an appointment to speak with the reporter when it is convenient, and give a *really* condensed version of your story.

When you get to the appointment, be on time and bring copies of all pertinent paperwork with you for the reporter to keep and look over.

You want to be calm and serious about this. Going to the newspaper or TV station with a wild look in your eye, demanding to see the investigative reporter will get you escorted from the building, pronto.

If there's a story, and the reporter follows it, you may get a most satisfactory resolution. Not guaranteed, but it could certainly happen. Good luck.

By anon141399 — On Jan 10, 2011

We found our 16 year old daughter drunk in a van with a 32 year old man drunk driving. The man is unknown to us. She won't talk (police have said he has no record and seems like a "nice guy"). I checked his rap sheet and he has an extended record. I was told I am not allowed to have this guy's name because it's against the law. Two other officers and the district attorneys office said that was untrue.

I was instructed to contact the chief of police, who is always conveniently not in the office or went out or I don't know where he is. His secretary wouldn't give me the police report after the arresting officer talked to her (I could see this as I was in the station). I have no idea what is going on and the cops are covering up something.

Can I subpoena this violent dope head to court at my daughter's hearing? FYI - she has not done this before and is in deep crap and will be accountable to the magistrate as well (I could have just paid a fine and forgotten about it).

By anon139086 — On Jan 03, 2011

i had to go to court against my ex for a fight in which i was arrested and he was not. when the constable went to the house i was there getting my stuff out and he was not there. the constable served me with mine and his subpoenas and asked me to give his to him.

i didn't give it to him and went to the court date and he didn't show up because he didn't know about it, and the charges were dropped against me. i didn't know it was going to happen, but he was then charged with contempt of court. he's going to fight it because he was never served, but can i get in trouble for not giving it him?

By anon127679 — On Nov 17, 2010

I'm aware you only attend court if you have been legally given the subpoena by law? what if they claim they have posted it yet you have not received it yet? i need answers asap. thanks.

By anon124112 — On Nov 04, 2010

We found out a few months ago that my nephew had molested my daughter. He admitted it to the police. I want justice for my daughter, but why should I have to pay 1500.00 in airline tickets to get it. Shouldn't that be paid by the prosecuting state? Or the defendant. If I do have to pay, can I sue to get the money back? We're unemployed with this stupid economy and this really is a burden on us.

By yachiru — On Sep 06, 2010

My husband's grandmum used to live with us and receives my husband's uncle's subpoena. Just recently, the grandma moved out. We don't want to get any more of those subpoenas, so I told the server that the uncle moved. What would happen if that's the case? Will we get in trouble for it?

By anon108948 — On Sep 05, 2010

my children were served a subpoena from a law enforcement officer that is the leading officer in my case that I'm going to trial on. can they force my 14 yea old and 15 year old to testify against me?

By anon108531 — On Sep 03, 2010

so i got a subpoena in the mail but not hand delivered. do i still face punishment if i do not attend, or is that a cue to say time for a beer and a nap?

By anon92747 — On Jun 30, 2010

Can a wife be issued a subpoena to answer questions about her husband's activities. There is a pending case, State of Florida vs her husband.

By anon87287 — On May 29, 2010

Can a subpoena be issued over the phone?

By anon79886 — On Apr 25, 2010

i have to give evidence in court after my father abused me, but i haven't received a subpoena or heard from the police officer on my case. what should i do?

By anon77048 — On Apr 13, 2010

If I am ignoring the bailiff and he never knows if i received the subpoena, will I get in trouble for not going? They taped it to my door.

By anon73113 — On Mar 25, 2010

Do I have to accept a subpoena/summons for my son? He does not live here and has never lived at this address.

By anon71087 — On Mar 17, 2010

We got a subpoena for a wreck that my husband was in. Do we have to take that piece of paper with us. We can't find it. Where do we go when we get there? ETC.

By anon65037 — On Feb 10, 2010

Do I have to show up if I receive a subpoena from a defense attorney?

By anon53132 — On Nov 19, 2009

a subpoena was issued at my daughter's address, but I have moved out of state. How can I find out what it is about?

By anon46994 — On Sep 30, 2009

so what happens if you receive a summons as a witness for a civil trial, and the testimony you have to give can incriminate you on another matter? Can I get on the stand and not say anything?

By anon45816 — On Sep 20, 2009

do you only get served subpoenas if you are a witness?

By anon44898 — On Sep 11, 2009

so what's the answer to the question of being out of town and having already purchased airline tickets for the same day as the subpoena?

By anon42387 — On Aug 20, 2009

my 13-year-old son witnessed a murder and is now subpoenaed to court. does he have to go and will the person that did it be there in the courtroom?

By anon38674 — On Jul 27, 2009

My husband has heard that he will be subpoenaed for a coworker's court date in the next couple of weeks. We have a planned family reunion and a job interview during this time out of state. If they send it in the mail while we're gone, is he still required to go? If they serve him in the few days before he leaves, can he do anything about it?

By anon36566 — On Jul 13, 2009

Can a court date be set for you, if you do not receive the subpoena???

By anon27195 — On Feb 25, 2009

we keep getting people serving subpoenas for people that may have lived at our current address in the past, we've been here for 4 months. so far we've had one neighbor point us out and say "yes that's them" we had been here 6 days and never laid eyes on each other. so my landlord had to take it and straighten it out.

2 days in a row another one, insisting that we were who they were looking for and a postal worker said "oh yes that person lives there" again i've never seen said postal worker.

on top of that i found out it should have gone to a different street # and yet still 2 days in row they insist its for here.

one time the server tried to shove it in my 10 yo's hand while she's telling him "that lady doesn't live here". i told them our name, told them the name on our mailbox is who lives here. i was standing there with my uniform, nametag on and still they argue.

i have much more but it would be really long.in closing my kids are afraid, i'm nervous. we love our new place, but obviously in the past there must have been quite a few people through here. what should? could i do? not our fault these people don't file change of address.

By anon24854 — On Jan 19, 2009

What are my rights when issued a Subpoena?

By anon24525 — On Jan 13, 2009

I had witnessed a shooting and filed a police report. I never agreed to testify in court. I was subpoena to show up in court to testify. I am meeting with the D.A. I am scared. The person I witnessed shooting knows my whole family. If I was to testify in court I know he will come after my family. The area we stay in is bad, everyone knows everyone. But the D.A. don't care.

By anon23600 — On Dec 29, 2008

Oh man, I think I am in trouble! The DA came to my house to try to subpoena me and I lied and said I was my sister! Im in big trouble now aren't I? Someone please help with some advice. I didn't really mean to lie, I was just scared and didn't know what it was for! Should I just keep avoiding that guy? I don't want to go to jail! Someone help me please.

By anon22042 — On Nov 26, 2008

I had a former coworker subpoena for my unemployment hearing. She is a very important witness. She did not show up she had a letter sent to the Judge her spouse had a doctor's appointment signed by the physician. I thought when you were subpoena you had to show up for court? I know she is afraid of losing her job. But the Director knows this former coworker can verify she documented false statements against me. I was terminated from my job 9/4/08. There were false statements, accusations not investigated properly only to protect them.

By marydoyle — On Nov 14, 2008

If someone comes to my house with a subpoena for my son for civil matter (unpaid credit card debt) what am I required by law to do? Do I have to tell them where he is now or what?

By anon20093 — On Oct 25, 2008

7065 my son was served with a subpoena at my house with he does not live here he lives someplace at another address. did i have to accept the subpoena?

and because i didn't accept it will he be in trouble.

By anon18723 — On Sep 28, 2008

I got subpoena but im living in a different state, and im going under surgery that same month. But i had told them that i was not going to testify but they still send me the letter. What should i do?

By anon18216 — On Sep 17, 2008

is it possible to be subpoenaed as witness in divorce proceedings that you are not directly involved with, in other words someone else's divorce proceedings.

By anon16981 — On Aug 19, 2008

i got subpoena but i have moved to college out of state...do they pay to fly me in?

By samsamiam40 — On Jul 10, 2008

Is there a place on the internet to see who all got subpoena to a case? Thanks

By anon14798 — On Jun 24, 2008

i got a subpoena i need to know if you can get in to trouble if you don't go but have a doc excusing you from it im 6 months pregnant and im on bed rest and can't go the subpoena from a credit card company trying to sue me i guess can you help me out???

By anon14621 — On Jun 20, 2008

What happens if you get a subpoena for a particular day but you have planned a vacation to be out of town, including airline tickets etc.

By anon14530 — On Jun 18, 2008

Hi, I want to mention that court and congress aren't the only entities that have the authority to issue subpoenas. In Massachusetts, for example, a justice of the Peace or Notary Public may issue all subpoenas (all = ad testificandum, duces tecum, deposition).

By anon13323 — On May 24, 2008

i received a subpoena for being a witness of a criminal act. However, the man did not see my face. Is there any way I can give my response without him seeing me, and not be punished for attending court? Please respond.

By ch33ch33 — On May 21, 2008

if you get a subpoena and you don't go but it's because you were missing with someone over your age a little and they want to press charges towards them what will happen?

By anon12069 — On Apr 29, 2008

What if I am subpoenaed for a murder trial, but not involved with in any way except for I happened to be the sister of the guy involved in the case and they were staying at my apartment because my sister lived with me, and the court wants me to testify because I was home when they were home the night of the murder. I will be serving in Iraq during the trial and they want to send me a subpoena to come back to the states and testify. I was told that I will have to use my own money to fly to the states and then back to Iraq. Is that true or am I only being threatened for cooperation in testifying for something I have no clue about only that I was home that night and saw them.

By anon11235 — On Apr 11, 2008

I just got a subpoena. The officer told me that it is on "stand-by" what does this mean? He also told me that i cannot leave the county for 30 days or until i am dismissed because they will call me at any moment to come to court and i have to drop whatever im doing to be there. Can they really tell me i can't leave the county or i will be arrested? Don't they usually have a set date and time that you have to come in?

By bestcity — On Apr 03, 2008

Guadalupe - Sounds like the State of New Jersey is suing Defendant Joe. The subpoena (or subpena) should state the legal claims being made against Joe. It should tell you what charges are being made against Joe. Sounds like you are being subpoenaed to be a witness for that lawsuit. Generally, if you get a subpena, you are required to go tell the truth in court unless doing so would incriminate yourself or some other legal privilege gets you out of testifying. But you still have to show up, usually. If you are unsure about what to do with the subpena, there should be a contact number to the court that is overseeing the case. Call them. They should answer any questions you have. Alternatively, you can always call public aid in your area or an attorney.

By guadalupe — On Apr 02, 2008

what does it mean when you get subpoena and it says state of new jersey plaintiff vs. defendant Joe?

what to say when you get subpoena and you do not know what you are being called for?

By bgeb — On Mar 15, 2008

Can anyone subpoena (ex wife, private detective, police, etc) internet records without notifying a person? Is there a way to find out if a request for those records has been made? If so, how?

By tattertot — On Mar 09, 2008

i need to know if i have to go to court if i didn't receive a subpoena but i have one out for me. a district attorney called and left a message i called her back and she gave me a time and date but didn't tell me were. i just want to know if i have to go if i don't have a subpoena in my hands, and will i get in trouble.

By anon8754 — On Feb 20, 2008

I was given a subpoena by my neighbor signed only by her lawyer to go to court as a witness. the address is wrong and my name is spelled wrong, do I have to show up?

By anon7065 — On Jan 17, 2008

If a Subpoena was served to a home that you no longer live at but have not done a change of address for your license and a subpoena was served at the address and left in the mailbox. basically my question is does a subpoena have to be given to someone or can it be left in the mailbox? And if a person no longer lives at the address do the people that live there have to take the subpoena and can they be called into court if they have no information about the proceedings?

By anon4716 — On Oct 29, 2007

Service of a Subpoena is usually made at a person's usual place of abode. Meaning, if the subpoena was served at your home while you were away at college,the service is good. You should acknowledge the service and comply. But then again, you can do the wrong thing and say the address where the subpoena was served is NOT your home. You would be lying and subject to sanctions and more aggravation that telling the truth. I am a Licensed Process Server, and serve process in Florida. You can run but you can't hide!

By anon4361 — On Oct 15, 2007

My subpoena was given to my parents while I was at college, six hours away. Does it matter that the subpoena wasn't given to me directly and it wasn't signed by the person who delivered it?

By anon2852 — On Jul 28, 2007

What happens if a subpoena is issued but the person it is for is not available? If it was for a grand jury and it was never served before the date of the grand jury will that person have any problems from that. Also, can you explain how sealed indictments work. If a sealed indictment is issued do law enforcement officials actively attempt to find the person named in the indictment or do they just post it to law enforcement and wait for that person to just get picked up somewhere.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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