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What is the Difference Between a Summons and a Subpoena?

By Jodee Redmond
Updated May 16, 2024
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Summonses and subpoenas are both legal documents that call a person or business into a United States court, but the difference has to do with why. A summons is generally used to inform someone that they are actually a party to a lawsuit, usually as a defendant. In most cases this means that the person is being sued, and the document will both inform them of the action and put them on notice that they need to prepare a defense. A subpoena, on the other hand, is typically used to call witnesses to court. Lawyers for each side of a legal dispute are permitted to choose witnesses who will offer testimony in support of their version of events, and witnesses are usually required to attend. Subpoenas inform prospective witnesses that they have been called, and also usually set out details of when the trial is and what the penalties are for failing to appear. Both types of documents usually compel mandatory appearance, and ignoring them can have serious consequences.

Documents for Calling Parties

When someone is being sued in the U.S., the law says that he or she needs to receive notice both of who has brought the action and where. This information is generally conveyed in a summons, which is an official order to appear in court. The exact information contained can very somewhat by jurisdiction and type of case, but most of the time it identifies who filed the action, names the lawyer representing that party, and states when the trial will be happening if a date has been set.

Sending summonses is one of the first things that people do when they start a legal action. Almost anyone can sue anyone else for basically any reason, but a summons is a way to make sure that both parties have the same advantage when it comes to information about the legal proceeding and time to prepare, at least formally. These sorts of documents are used in both civil and criminal matters.

As a Means of Calling Witnesses

People can also be called to court to act as witnesses in a trial, often to offer a personal accounting of certain events, to offer expert knowledge, or to testify about someone else’s character or general nature. These people are not themselves parties to the case, but they nonetheless play an important role in the proceedings. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are usually allowed to call a certain number of witnesses in order to build their cases. The specific number varies based on the type of trial and the discretion of the presiding judge.

This type of document is similar to a summons in that it informs a person that he or she is required to appear in court. The document basically acts as a source of information, and provides the person with the details they need to appear. Contact information for the lawyers involved as well as the court is usually attached, and people can call with questions — but the notice is not optional. People who receive orders to appear as witnesses are required by law to comply, though in most cases the courts do authorize a “witness fee” that will cover any travel and lodging expenses a person incurs while complying.

Nature of the Testimony

There are typically two types of documents used to call witnesses, depending on the sort of testimony that’s required. A subpoena ad testificandum typically requires a person to prepare oral testimony about a certain event, person, or happening, while a subpoena duces tecum is focused more on documents and paperwork. A person who receives the first type is usually called based on their observations or first-hand knowledge of something or someone. The second, by contrast, is more focused on records and written documents. Someone who gets this sort of order usually still has to appear, but his or her main function is to bring records and talk about their legitimacy, how they were prepared, or anything else the parties’ lawyers ask.

Service Differences

Both party-related and witness-related documents have to be delivered to their intended recipients though what is known as “due process of service.” Different courts and jurisdictions sometimes have slightly different rules when it comes to what counts as “good” service, but in most cases the rules are designed to make sure that the recipient receives the appropriate papers with enough time to respond.

Service for a summons is often the most intensive. People often have to be physically handed these papers in order for them to be effective. Sometimes they can be mailed, but usually only through registered mail that requires a signature to more or less prove delivery. Orders calling witnesses are usually mailed, but always with a return receipt or other proof of delivery. Failing to answer either document is usually very serious, and as a result the courts typically want proof that a person actually received the notice in the first place.

Legal Obligations Attached

The primary consequence of ignoring a summons is a default loss of the case, which is generally unfavorable. Judges don’t often look well on parties who fail to appear, and default judgments tend to be decided overwhelmingly in favor of the person or business who filed the case. People sometimes think that simply not appearing can make the case “go away,” but this isn’t how it usually ends up. Default judgments tend to be monetary, and the courts typically have the power to seize the losing party’s assets or garnish his or her wages to settle the debt. People who don’t appear in criminal actions often risk receiving heightened penalties and maximum sentences.

Failing to answer a witness request, on the other hand, can land a person in jail. Witnesses are considered essential to the proper functioning of most trials, as they allow each side to build the best case possible. When someone who has been called fails to appear or ignores the order, he or she is generally considered “in contempt of court,” which is serious. People can sometimes get out of witness service if they have a hardship or other problem, but this usually has to be with the permission of the judge or lawyers involved. Simply ignoring the request is not usually an acceptable way forward.

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Discussion Comments

By anon314021 — On Jan 15, 2013

What if you're being told by the person who says they got something against you that I'm being summoned to court but I never received anything from anyone. What if I don't get the papers and miss court?

By anon310318 — On Dec 21, 2012

I was subpoenaed to court today in Ohio. The roads are really bad because of snow; they even closed my son's school down. I have a seven year old and an infant. I didn't feel I should risk their safety for a court. The courts were even behind today. A lady told me she had to testify on my behalf today.

I sent the district attorney a letter last week in regards to everything I witnessed. The district attorney even called me two days ago and we talked over the phone about what I have witnessed. Do you think I will get in trouble for not going to court since the roads were bad?

By dautsun — On Nov 27, 2012

Regardless of the reason, I can tell you that a lot of people actually resist subpoena service. I have a cousin that does some work as a process server, and he told me that people often run away from him even if they're just being served a subpoena, not a summons. Because you never know what you're being served with until you open it!

Working as a process server sounds pretty interesting, but my cousin tells me it can also be pretty dangerous work. I don't think I would want to take on the job of chasing people down and trying to serve them with papers!

By JessicaLynn — On Nov 27, 2012

@Pharoah - I think it's a good idea to consult a lawyer if you have any kind of involvement in a legal proceeding. Even if you've only gotten subpoena forms, it's still always a good idea to know what your rights and obligations are. I think you were definitely right to consult a lawyer when you got that subpoena!

By Pharoah — On Nov 26, 2012

I'm telling you, even though a subpoena for deposition only means you need to be a witness to something, it's still scary to get any kind of court related document in the mail! I got a subpoena for something quite awhile ago, and the whole process was really intimidating.

Even though I didn't do anything wrong and I wasn't directly involved in the case, the whole process was still scary. I actually consulted a lawyer of my own before I went to court, though, which helped ease my mind a little bit.

By Monika — On Nov 25, 2012
@Markus - I could be wrong, but I think if you don't show up for court for any reason you can risk being thrown into jail for contempt of court. But then again, I could be wrong. I'm not a lawyer, I just watch a lot of legal shows on TV!
By anon177988 — On May 19, 2011

Agree with the above for coniglio purposes.

By Markus — On May 05, 2011

@goldensky - Yea, another difference is what happens if you don’t show up for court. If it’s just a court summons you could automatically lose the case. But if it’s a court subpoena you’ll automatically go to jail.

By goldensky — On May 04, 2011

Another way to look at the difference between a summons and a subpoena is your involvement in the case. If you receive a summons, that means you are directly involved or you were a participant in the case. But if you receive a subpoena, then you’re considered a witness to something. I think the legal terminology is someone who can provide credible evidence. Either way you’re being ordered to court.

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