A summons is an official notice of a lawsuit. It is given to a person (or business) so that they know they are being sued and they are given the opportunity to defend themselves. This notification procedure is called service of process.
A lawsuit starts when a person files a complaint or petition. A complaint or petition is a document that says that the person being sued has done something wrong, or the person filing wants something to happen.
After a person files a complaint or petition, they will fill out a summons. Then, they will have the summons served on the other party. If a summons is properly served on the other party, then the parties must go to court to present their case. If the other party doesn't show up in court, a person can automatically win the case.
If a person sues someone without giving them proper notice of the lawsuit, the case can be dismissed. Notice, and an opportunity to be heard, are required. In order to give proper notice, a person usually must give the other party a summons.
Serving a company, partnership, or the government
There are separate rules for service of process on corporations, partnerships and the government.
- Corporations and partnerships: Generally, the summons and complaint must be served on the registered agent representing the corporation or partnership or on an officer of the corporation or partnership.
- Government and government agencies: depending on the type of lawsuit that a person files. If someone thinks they need to file their lawsuit against the government or a government agency, they should talk to an attorney.
Serving a summons through publication in a newspaper
Service by publication means that a notice is published in a newspaper in the area where the lawsuit was filed. A person needs to file a Motion for Leave to Serve by Publication and an Affidavit for Service by Publication before being allowed to give service through the newspaper. Click here for more information on filing a motion.
Note: A person cannot get everything they asked for in the suit from the other party if they serve them by publication. They cannot get a judgment for money against someone when they serve them by publication. For example, this means that in a divorce case, a person would be able to get the divorce itself, but would not be able to get a judgment requiring the other side to pay child support.
Costs for serving a summons
The cost for serving a summons varies depending on how you serve the summons. If a person uses the Sheriff, they can find out the fee by calling the Sheriff in their county.
A person may be able to get the fee waived for serving someone. They must meet certain income and property guidelines and file a fee waiver.
How to serve a summons
A person cannot serve the summons and complaint on the defendant on their own. Usually, they will need to use one of the 3 following people:
- Private detective
- Special process server: anyone over the age of 18 who is not involved in the case
No matter who does it, the person can properly serve the defendant in the following ways:
- By handing the summons and complaint to the defendant personally at their home or at any location; or
- By going to the defendant's home, and giving the summons and complaint to someone who lives with the defendant and is at least 13 years old.
If possible, the papers should be put in the hands of the person receiving them. However, this is not always required. If the person serving the papers speaks to the person receiving them through the door, or sees them come to the door but then they go back into the house, the person can leave the papers on the door or can slip them under the door.
Serving a summons with the sheriff
The most common way to serve a summons is to get the Sheriff to do it. A person can get the sheriff in their county to serve a summons after they file their complaint and pay a fee.
Follow these steps to serve a summons through the Sheriff:
- Make 2 more copies of the summons and complaint
- Take the copies of the summons and complaint to the sheriff to arrange for service on the defendant.
- The sheriff will go to the address you list on the summons and attempt to serve the defendant.
- If no one answers the door, the sheriff will leave and come back a different day. They will not leave the papers on the door, or force their way into the house.
- Once the sheriff serves the defendant, the sheriff fills out a sworn statement on the back of the summons copy and files it with the court. You can then move forward with your case.
Serving a summons with a professional process server
A person can hire a professional process server who is licensed to serve people. This usually costs more than using the Sheriff, but it can be a way to serve defendants who are harder to find or who are avoiding service.
To find a professional process server, a person can look in the yellow pages, or on the internet. The National Association of Professional Process Servers also has a directory that a person can search by zip code.
Give a copy of the summons and complaint to the licensed private detective. Once they serve the defendant, they will fill out a sworn statement on the back of the summons explaining how they served the defendant.
Serving a summons with someone over the age of 18
Anyone 18 years of age or older who is not a party in the lawsuit can serve a defendant, but the plaintiff must first ask the judge for permission. They must file a Motion for Appointment of Special Process Server.
In the motion, they must tell the judge the name of the person who will serve the defendant. A judge must issue an order appointing the server before they can serve the defendant. Learn more about filing a motion.
After serving the defendant, the person must complete a signed and notarized affidavit describing how they did it, and attach it to the original summons. They must then file it with the court.
If there is no response to a summons
A summons usually gives the other side 30 days to file an appearance. If the other party does not respond to the summons, they may not have received it. The person can check with whomever was supposed to deliver the summons, whether that is the sheriff, or a special process server, to see if the summons was delivered.
If the defendant was not served, the person who is suing must serve an alias summons. An alias summons is a second summons. A person can serve an alias summons just like a normal summons. A person cannot move forward with their case until the defendant is served.