How to serve court papers

[A version of the following article by Chicago writer Maria Kantzavelos will appear in the January Illinois Bar Journal as part of a longer piece about the Illinois Supreme Court’s e-filing initiative.]

Effective Jan. 1, attorneys and parties involved in civil cases in circuit courts statewide must include an email address for service of documents on appearances and on all pleadings filed in court. The amendments to Supreme Court Rule 11, announced in October, make the following changes:

Rule 11. Manner of Serving Papers Documents Other Than Process and Complaint on Parties Not in Default in the Trial and Reviewing Courts

(a) On Whom Made. If a party is represented by an attorney of record, service shall be made upon the attorney. Otherwise service shall be made upon the party.

(b) Method. Papers Documents shall be served as follows:

(6) by transmitting them via e-mail to the designated e-mail address of record for the attorney or party; or

(7) by transmission through a service provider that provides an electronic in-box for those parties registered to use the service.

(d) E-Mail Address. A party or an attorney must include on the appearance and on all pleadings filed in court an e-mail address for service of documents.

In addition to striking the word “papers” and replacing it with “documents,” the amended rule permits litigants to serve those documents using the designated email address of record for the attorney or party. And – importantly – it requires lawyers to receive documents served by email as valid service.

The rule amendment expressly allows transmission through a service that “provides an electronic in-box” for those registered to use it, a change that should help avoid the file-size limits and other problems inherent in sending email with large attachments.

But electronic documents come in countless formats – does the new rule mean lawyers must acquire software for every conceivable format so they can convert each document to a readable form? “I think good manners solves this problem,” said Chicago lawyer Bruce R. Pfaff, chair of the Supreme Court’s Special E-Business Committee. “If someone sends a lawyer material in a format that cannot be downloaded, a simple request to provide it in another format should solve the problem.

“If it truly cannot be converted to a basic format like PDF, you then have a special problem,” he said. “When lawyers have special problems that cannot be resolved, they need to go to court. I suspect the instances will be rare and no more so than in present litigation.”

For lawyers who wonder how they will verify receipt of service, Pfaff said, “You don’t. When you serve by regular mail, you don’t ‘verify receipt of service’ and you don’t need to do it when serving by email. If service is challenged at a hearing, the sender may wish to print the sent email showing the correct e-address or verify that she hasn’t received a bounce back.”

E-business committee member Trent Bush of Sterling said the email service will be “convenient for both sides” in a lawsuit. “Traditionally, I would have to mail a copy of everything I file with the court to opposing counsel and parties,” Bush said. “Now you can do that electronically, rather than sticking it in the mail.

“People have accepted communicating by email as…appropriate, economical, and convenient….I think that the ability to serve parties by email will be welcomed by Illinois attorneys,” he said.

Before the rule change, Bush said, a lawyer walking into the office on a Monday morning might discover that the pleading sent by an opposing counsel on the previous Friday had been sitting at the fax machine all weekend, or is in the day’s bundle of snail mail.

With the popularity of smart phones and the amended rule allowing documents to be served via email, Bush said, “You’re going to know that that pleading is out there, rather than maybe catching up with it a few days later.…It will allow attorneys to be a little more on top of their cases.”

Blank forms to print and fill out on your own, with how-to instructions for completing and filing. When filing your case, make sure a copy of the petition, summons, and other papers you are filing are delivered to the person you are filing the case against "the other party" in a legally correct way. #3201EN

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Do I have to serve the other party?

Yes. When you file a family law case in court, you must have a copy of the petition, summons, and other papers you are filing delivered to the person you are filing the case against ("the other party"). We call this having the other party "served."

The other party has a legal right to receive a copy of the papers you file. The judge will not make any decisions in your case until you can show proof that the other party got copies of your court papers.

How do I have the other party served?

There are three different ways:

personal service (hand delivery)

In Washington, you must always try to have the other party personally served. If you absolutely cannot have them served this way, you can ask court permission to serve them by mail or publication.

What is personal service?

Someone age 18 or older besides you must hand deliver the papers to the other party, or to someone old enough living at their home. The person who delivers the papers is your "server."

You do not need court permission for personal service.

Personal service is usually the cheapest way to get the other party served.

Keep track of everything you do to try to get the other party personally served. You may be unsuccessful. At that point, you need court permission to serve by mail or publication.

Who can do personal service?

You can get a friend to do this, or you can pay a server.

What is service by mail?

*You need court permission before you try to serve by mail.

You find someone to mail the paperwork for you. They must mail two copies of the papers to the other party:

one by regular mail

one by certified mail, return receipt requested

What is service by publication?

You need court permission before you can try to serve this way. This method of serving costs the most. It may be the least likely to reach the other party.

You should ask permission to serve the other party by publication only as a last resort, if you cannot get a court order to serve by mail.

If a judge later decides the service by mail or publication was improper (example: the judge does not believe you tried hard enough to find the other party), the judge can cancel all your court orders.

How can I find the other party for personal service?

You must make an honest, reasonable search. Follow up on any information you get that may help you find them.

Try calling possible phone numbers for them.

Ask the Postal Service for a forwarding address from the last known address you have.

Call every friend, roommate, and relative of the opposing party you know. Ask about an address.

If the other party pays child support through DCS, and you are trying to change child support or your parenting plan, do a DCS address release request. Or see our packet File a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order. It may take 30 days or more to get the other party's address this way.

Check sources online for finding people's addresses.

Talk to the other party's present or former employers, unions, or co-workers to try to get a home address or a place of work.

I have found the other party. How do I have them personally served?

Find detailed instructions for your type of family law case and a Proof of Personal Service form at WashingtonLawHelp.org under the Family Law topic area. Look for the do-it-yourself packet for your type of case.

There is also a Proof of Personal Service form here. Your server must fill out this form. You must then file it with the court. Keep a copy for your records.

I tried everything. I cannot find the other party for personal service. Now what?

You can ask court permission to serve the other party or parties by mail or publication. Use our Service by Certified Mail or Publication packet.

After you file for separation, the next step is to make sure your spouse is “served” with a copy of the summons and complaint (and anything else you filed). The Court does not serve the papers for you. Visit this section to learn about how to have your spouse served, and what to do if you do not know where to find your spouse.

Please read the information on this page very carefully. If your spouse (the “Defendant”) is not properly served, your case could get dismissed and you will have to start all over!

What to Serve

Your spouse must be served with the following:

  • A copy of the filed Complaint for Separation
  • A copy of the Summons

Always keep the originals if the court gave them back to you. The original may need to be returned to the court for filing after your spouse has been served. Always make copies of documents to be served on your spouse.

When to Serve the Defendant

Your documents must be served within 120 days after you file the complaint. If your spouse is not served within 120 days, your case will be dismissed and you will have to start all over.

Who Can Serve the Defendant

The papers must be served by a “disinterested person.” This means someone who is not a party in the case, not interested in the outcome of the case, and who is at least 18 years old. Family members and significant others (boyfriends/girlfriends) cannot serve the documents , as this could raise questions with the court. You can ask a neutral person to serve the documents, or you can hire the sheriff, constable, or a private process service to serve the documents for a fee.

The person who serves your documents must complete an Affidavit of Service that says when, where, and how the documents were served. The affidavit must be filed with the court to show that your spouse was properly served. If you use the sheriff, constable, or a private process server, they may have their own form to complete as proof of service. If you have someone else serve the summons and complaint, they can download and fill out the Affidavit of Service below, which will be filed with the court as the proof of service.

Generally, you cannot serve the papers. You can serve the documents yourself ONLY IF the Defendant (or Defendant’s attorney) is willing to waive formal service of the documents and will accept the documents from you. The Defendant will have to complete a “Waiver of Service of Summons and Complaint,” and you must file the document with the court.

How to Serve the Defendant

Your spouse must be personally served with a copy of the documents. This means someone must hand-deliver the documents to the defendant in person. Your spouse can be served anywhere – at home, at work, etc. The person who serves the Defendant must complete an Affidavit of Service stating when, where and what documents were served on the Defendant.

File Proof of Service

Remember, the Affidavit of Service must be filed with the court so the judge knows when and where the Defendant was served. If this is not filed within 120 days of when you filed your complaint, the judge may dismiss your case! If you still have the original Summons, that must be filed as well.

Bring the Affidavit of Service and the original Summons (if you still have it) to the court for filing. Both must be filed.

If You Can’t Find the Defendant

You must do everything you can to locate your spouse.

WARNING!

However, if Defendant is evading service or cannot be found, you have two options:

If You Can Contact Defendant, But Don’t Have An Address, Request Alternate Service

You can ask the judge for permission to serve by alternate means. This could mean sending the documents by email, by social media, by texting the documents, etc.

The full instructions are below, however, if you want to e-file, you should fill out the individual forms below separately. If the judge allows you to serve by alternate service, you will have to send the documents through every method the judge identifies on the order.

If You Cannot Find Defendant At All, Request Publication

If you have no contact at all with the other parent and don’t know where to find him/her, the judge expects you to do everything possible to try and find them. Contact friends, family members, employers, coworkers, or anyone who might know where to find Defendant. Search for Defendant online through social networking sites and by email. You can also check the Post Office for forwarding information. Check with any source that might lead you to a good address. This is called doing your “due diligence.” The judge will want to see you tried as many avenues as possible to find Defendant.

If you still cannot find the other parent, you can ask the Court for permission to publish the summons in a newspaper instead. You may also have to mail the documents to a last known address if you have one. You will have to detail all of the efforts you made to find Defendant.

The full instructions are below. Howver, if you want to efile, you should fill out the individual forms below separately.

Suing a business might seem like a daunting task. The process server will be able to determine the correct person to be served on behalf of the business entity.

Who is Served?

As mentioned, it depends on the organization of the business. Take a look at the list below:

  • Sole proprietorship: Serve owner
  • Partnership: Serve one or more partners
  • Limited partnership: Serve the partner who’s in-charge of running the business/agent for service of process
  • Corporation (profit/non-profit): Serve an officer/Agent for service of process
  • Limited liability company: Same as corporation
  • In the alternative: If none of the above are available, you may serve the “person in charge at the time of service.” This includes a receptionist, key employee, or security guard if they deny the process server access to the person to be served.

If you’re not sure who the officer of the business is, call the business and ask! An alternative is to get this information from the office of the secretary of state for the state where the defendant is located.

Substituted or Personal Service

If you engage in personal service, the claim and summons must be given to the defendant. That means you just cannot put it in the defendant’s mailbox and leave. If the defendant refuses to accept the paper, put it down and leave. The service is valid and accomplished. If the person is not available, the process server leaves the papers at the business during business hours with the person in charge (substituted service). A copy of the summons and complaint must be served at the same address.

Post Office Box or PO Box

If the person or company you want to serve has a PO box, you need their street address to serve them. A process server will be able to obtain a street address from the Post Office by submitting a USPS form. There is a small fee for this process.

Proof of Service

A Proof of Service has to be filed with the court clerk once the service is completed. The Proof of Service form is signed by the person conducting the service.

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This article tells you how to serve the initial court papers in a family law case (such as a divorce, custody, modification, child’s name change, or paternity case).

Do I have to serve the respondent(s) with the initial court papers?

Yes. Each person named as a respondent in your petition (the form you file to start your case) must be served with the initial court papers.

Exception: A respondent does not need to be served with the initial court papers if he or she will voluntarily fill out and sign:

  • a Respondent’s Original Answer form or
  • a Waiver of Service Only (Specific Waiver) form (this form must be signed in front of a notary).

You can skip the rest of this article if each respondent will voluntarily fill out and sign an answer or waiver of service.

What papers do I have served?

Each respondent must be served with the “initial court papers,” which include:

  • the citation (you will get this form at the clerk’s office when you file your case),
  • a copy of your petition (the form you file to start your case), and
  • a copy of any other forms you file with your petition.

Can I be the server?

No. You must arrange for a constable, sheriff, or private process server to serve the initial court papers. You may need to ask the district clerk to issue the citation so that you can give it to a constable, sheriff, or private process server.

How can the respondent be served?

You can have a constable, sheriff, private process server, or the court clerk serve the respondent using one of these methods.

  • Personal Service. (This method is best.)

The constable, sheriff, or private process server will:

  • deliver the initial court papers to the respondent in person; and
  • complete a Return of Service form that says when and where the respondent was served; and
  • file the completed Return of Service with the court or send it to you to file with the court. (The Return of Service is proof the respondent was served.)

The respondent will NOT have to sign anything.

  • Service by Registered or Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested.

The clerk (or constable) will:

  • mail the initial court papers to the respondent by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested; and
  • if the return receipt (or “green card”) issigned by the respondent and returned to the clerk, the clerk (or constable) will complete a Return of Service form that says when and where the respondent was served, and
  • file the completed Return of Service with the court or send it to you to file.

Warning! You should only use service by registered or certified mail if you know that the respondent will sign for the certified letter. If someone else signs for the letter or the respondent does not sign his or her name exactly as it is written on your petition, you will have to pay another fee and have the respondent served a different way.

  • Substituted Service by Court Order.

You can ask the judge for permission to serve the respondent another way if the constable, sheriff, or private process server:

  • has tried to serve the respondent in person or by registered or certified mail without success; and
  • can confirm that the respondent lives, works, or can be found at the location where service was attempted.

You must file a Motion for Substituted Service and a Rule 106(b) Affidavit from the constable, sheriff or private process server. If the judge is convinced that the respondent can be found at the location where service was attempted, the judge can sign an Order for Substituted Service that authorizes the constable, sheriff, or private process server to:

  • leave a copy of the initial court papers with anyone over 16 at the location specified in the affidavit or
  • authorize service in any other manner that will be reasonably effective to give the respondent notice.

It is possible to serve someone by social media. See Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code 17.033. Read Can you serve someone citation through social media?

  • Service by Posting.

This method of service is used if you cannot find the respondent (after looking really hard), and there are no children involved. Read this article to learn more: Service by Posting (when you can’t find your spouse in a divorce without kids).

  • Service by Publication.

This method of service is used if you cannot find the respondent (after looking really hard), and there are children involved. Read this article to learn more: Service by Publication (when you can’t find the other parent). Citation is issued by both newspaper and by a statewide public information web site.

Getting the respondent served can be complicated. If you have questions, talk to a lawyer.

This article tells you how to serve your spouse with the initial divorce papers.

Page Sections

Does my spouse have to be served with the initial divorce papers?

Yes. If you file for divorce, your spouse must be served with the initial divorce papers.

Exception: Your spouse does not need to be served with the initial divorce papers if he or she will voluntarily fill out and sign:

  • a Respondent’s Original Answer form or
  • a Waiver of Service Only form (this form must be signed in front of a notary).

If your spouse will voluntarily fill out and sign an answer or waiver of service, the rest of this article does not apply to you.

What papers do I have served?

Your spouse must be served with the “initial divorce papers” which include:

  • the citation (get this form at the clerk’s office when you file your case); and
  • a copy of your Original Petition for Divorce; and
  • a copy of any other forms you filed with your Original Petition for Divorce.

Can I be the server?

No. You must arrange for a constable, sheriff, private process server, or the court clerk to serve the initial divorce papers.

How can my spouse be served?

You can have a constable, sheriff, private process server, or the court clerk serve your spouse with the initial divorce papers using one of these methods.

  • Personal Service. (This method is best.)

The constable, sheriff, or private process server will:

  • deliver the initial divorce papers to your spouse in person;
  • complete a Return of Service form that says when and where your spouse was served; and
  • file the completed Return of Service with the court or send it to you to file with the court. (The Return of Service is proof your spouse was served.)

Your spouse will NOT have to sign anything.

  • Service by Registered or Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested.

The clerk (or constable) will:

  • mail the initial divorce papers to your spouse by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested; and
  • if the return receipt (or “green card”) issigned by your spouse and returned to the clerk, the clerk (or constable) will complete a Return of Service form that says when and where your spouse was served, and
  • file the completed Return of Service with the court or send it to you to file.

Warning! You should only use service by registered or certified mail if you know that your spouse will sign for the certified letter. If someone else signs for the letter or your spouse does not sign his or her name exactly as it is written on your Original Petition for Divorce, you will have to pay another fee and have your spouse served a different way.

  • Substituted Service by Court Order.

You can ask the judge for permission to serve your spouse another way if the constable, sheriff, or private process server:

  • has tried to serve your spouse in person or by registered or certified mail without success; and
  • can confirm that your spouse lives, works, or can be found at the location where service was attempted.

You must file a Motion for Substituted Service and a Rule 106(b) Affidavit from the constable, sheriff or private process server. If the judge is convinced that your spouse can be found at the location where service was attempted, the judge can sign an Order for Substituted Service that authorizes the constable, sheriff, or private process server to:

  • leave a copy of the initial divorce papers with anyone over 16 at the location specified in the affidavit or
  • authorize service in any other manner that will be reasonably effective to give your spouse notice of the divorce.
  • Service by Posting.

This method of service is used if you cannot find your spouse (after looking really hard), and there are no children involved. Learn more here: Service by Posting (when you can’t find your spouse in a divorce without kids).

  • Service by Publication.

This method of service is used if you cannot find your spouse (after looking really hard), and there are children involved. Learn more here: Service by Publication (when you can’t find the other parent).

Getting your spouse served can be complicated. If you have questions, talk to a lawyer.

How do I serve the rest of the court papers I file?

As a general rule, only the initial divorce papers (citation, petition, and any other papers you file with the petition) need to be served by a constable, sheriff, private process server or the court clerk. You can serve the rest of the papers yourself.

Send a copy of any other papers you file in the case to your spouse. If your spouse has a lawyer, send a copy to the lawyer instead. You can use any of these delivery methods:

  • Hand delivery
  • Email
  • Regular Mail or Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested
  • Commercial delivery service (for example FedEx)
  • Fax
  • Electronic service through the electronic filing manager. (Note: This method is required if you electronically file (E-File) the Petition and the email address of your spouse (or your spouse’s lawyer) is on file with the electronic file manager.)

Exception: If you file an amended petition for divorce and your spouse has not filed an answer, you must have your spouse served with the amended petition. Follow these steps:

INCREASE FONT SIZE

FAQ – Serving Others

  • Print
  • Email

Note: Please look at the fee waiver and deferral criteria to see if you meet the requirements to file a deferral for publication costs.

Once all forms are completed, the following steps need to occur:

  1. Send Request to the Newspaper
    1. If you are paying the costs to publish, use any paper or general circulation. Contact them to ensure they offer this service and then send them a letter making an official request ( pdf Sample Letter (76 KB) ).
    1. Attach a copy of the published notice from the newspaper
    2. Make 1 copy: Original – is filed with the Clerk; 1 – your records
    1. The original version of the Affidavit of Circumstances why Service by Publication was Used and About the Publication
    2. A copy of the publication notice
    3. The original Affidavit of Service by Publication that was sent by the newspaper
    1. Be on time
    2. Dress neatly out if children are allowed in courtroom
    3. Bring a copy of the Petition , Notice of Hearing, Affidavit Showing Why Publication was Used, and Affidavit of Service with you

    This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.

    There are many scenarios in life where you may need to legally serve papers to another individual, such as when filing for divorce or carrying out an eviction. When serving legal papers it is necessary to follow the exact process required by the state in order to ensure that the papers are legally enforceable. If you need to serve legal notice, here is what you need to know about the process to protect your interests.

    Confirm

    Before filing to serve papers you should ensure that you have legal standing for the process that you are serving. The specific requirements for serving legal notice vary by the type of papers you will be serving.

    File

    In order to serve the papers to the recipient, you must first formally file your paperwork. As with the requirements for confirming, the specific of what will be needed in order to file will vary based on the type of papers you wish to serve.

    Service

    Once your paperwork has been filed it is time for the papers to be served to the recipient. Often this means confirming the identity of the individual receiving the papers and delivering them directly. Most commonly, this will be handled by a representative of the court or a representative of the individual filing the papers.

    Because the process of serving papers can be confusing if you lack legal expertise, many people turn to the assistance of professional process servers to assist them. When you work with a professional process server you get assistance throughout the entire process in order to ensure that you are taking the right steps throughout. In addition to assisting with the physical act of serving papers to the individual in question, a professional process server can help you when filing to ensure that the correct procedures are undertaken and nothing is overlooked. If you need to serve papers, contact a process serving professional today.