Lawyers, paralegals, court staff, and anyone who has been involved in a lawsuit or legal matter knows that service of process is a critical aspect of legal proceedings. Service of Process (SOP) ensures fairness and transparency, guaranteeing that all parties involved are aware of legal actions against them and have the opportunity to respond or defend themselves in court.
Ensuring due process is a fundamental aspect of law and our justice system, and successful service of process is a pivotal step in any legal proceeding – but just how you can perform service of process will vary based on where you are filing and serving your documents. This blog will cover the basic steps to completing service of process, and what you’ll need to know before you proceed.
What is Service of Process?
Service of process refers to the formal delivery of legal documents, such as complaints, summonses, subpoenas, or other court filings, to individuals or entities involved in a legal matter. This notification informs them of their involvement in a lawsuit or legal action, giving them the opportunity to respond or defend themselves in court.
Service of process is meant to ensure that all parties involved in a lawsuit or litigation are fully aware of the legal proceedings. Failure to perform service of process could result in a delay in legal proceedings, or even a dismissal of your entire case.
Who can Perform Service of Process?
Who is legally allowed to perform service of process in your case will depend on the rules of your jurisdiction. Typically, this service of process is performed by a court official, such as a sheriff, marshal, constable, or bailiff. Most states also allow licensed private process servers to perform the service. In some states, any person can serve legal papers, as long as they are over 18 and not involved in the litigation (i.e. not a case party).
Service performed by a court official is often the most cost-effective method, while private process servers tend to have a higher price tag. Do your research beforehand to determine which method is right for you.
How to Perform Service of Process
Step 1: Understand the Jurisdictional Requirements
Different states, courts, and jurisdictions will have different rules for how service of process can be performed. For example, some jurisdictions may require that all court papers are served by the county sheriff, while other jurisdictions will allow certified process servers or notaries to perform service of process.
Most jurisdictions will list their specific rules around service of process on their website. When in doubt, you can always call your local court and ask.
Step 2: Identify the Correct Recipient
In order to properly perform service of process, you will need as much contact information on the service recipient as possible. At minimum, you should have the full name and current address of the person you are trying to serve. If you don’t know the address of the person you are serving, you may need to research public records or enlist the help of a professional service processor to ensure proper identification and delivery.
Step 3: Choose the Method of Service
Next, determine which service method is ideal for you. Remember, you will have different options for service method depending on the rules of your jurisdiction. A few of the most common methods to perform service of process are as follows:
- Personal Service: With this method, the documents will be hand-delivered to the recipient by a person authorized to perform service of process.
- Substituted Service: If the person you are trying to serve is unavailable, some jurisdictions allow the documents to be left with a suitable person at their residence. For example, if the person being served is not currently at their residence at the time of service, the documents may be left with their spouse or family member instead. Note that substituted service is not accepted in every jurisdiction.
- U.S. Mail Service: In some cases and jurisdictions, you have the option to perform service of process through the mail. In order to serve court documents through the mail, you will need to use certified mail, which requires the recipient to sign a receipt acknowledging the mail was received. This receipt will then act as your proof of service.
Step 4: Prepare the Documents
Ensure all necessary legal documents are complete, accurate, and include all required attachments, such as summons or affidavit of service. It’s a good idea to double- or triple-check these documents before serving them. Typos or inaccuracies on these documents could make them invalid in court, meaning you will have to start the process from the beginning.
Once you are certain that all information on your documents is correct, make copies of them for your personal records.
Step 5: Serve the Documents
Review all of the legal requirements for service of process in your jurisdiction and ensure that you are following the correct protocol. Deliver the documents to the authorized process server (reminder, this could be a court official, a licensed private process server, or an adult unconnected to the case, depending on the rules in your area) and they will take care of the rest.
Service of process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the method you chose and the availability of the person you are trying to serve.
Step 6: Complete and File Proof of Service
After your documents have successfully been served, the authorized process server should have obtained an affidavit or proof of service form. This document acts as evidence that proper service was carried out.
When you have obtained proof of service, it is important to file it with the court. This will certify to the court that you have properly served your documents, so the legal proceedings can continue.
If you are using an electronic filing service, like File & ServeXpress, you can upload and file the proof of service directly on the application. If you are filing your documents in paper, you have the option to mail or hand-deliver the proof of service to the courthouse.
Can I file a document and perform Service of Process in one step?
Some legal professionals opt to save time by filing case documents and performing service of process in one simple step. Whether you can combine these actions depends again on the rules of your jurisdiction.
Some electronic filing services will allow you to perform Service of Process as part of the filing process. For example, File & ServeXpress users in Fairfax Circuit Court have the option to perform service of process within the app. Click here to see an example of how FSX users in Fairfax can request service of process when they are filing their initial documents.
FSX Offers a Better Way to Serve
FSX offers a complete historical record and Transaction Reports to ensure you have the information and proof necessary to verify service claims. You can learn more about the other benefits of eService with FSX through the link below.