The Ultimate Guide to Service of Process & How to Select a Process Server

Ultimate Guide to Service of Process - Process Server - Proof

This guide shows you how to pick and evaluate companies and individuals providing service of process. As a general rule across jurisdictions in the United States, plaintiffs themselves cannot serve defendants. Plaintiffs must use a neutral party, which can include Proof.

For context, Proof is a software company serving over 4,000 clients, with servers operating in all 50 states. This article reflects our accrued knowledge and in it you will learn:

  • The fundamentals of service of process

  • How innovation has made service of process convenient for customers

  • The criteria you need to pick a provider 

  • How service of process works mechanically and what to watch out for

  • The best way to get ironclad proof of service

Learn the fundamentals of service of process

Let’s lay foundations first. The United States Constitution and the various state constitutions require the government to provide due process. The government includes the courts. They cannot issue a judgment on someone who did not know, or did not have an opportunity to know, about the legal proceeding. 

In turn, rules of civil procedure across federal and state jurisdictions provide for service of process. Essentially, service of process is about letting people know they’re in the thick of a court fight. For the most part that means handing people legal documents. The rules differ from area to area, but all of them implement the fundamental requirement of due process.

What legal documents are delivered during service of process? The most common are complaints, subpoenas, and summons.

  • A complaint lays out the claims and issues the plaintiff has brought before a court. 

  • A subpoena tells someone they have to testify or produce certain evidence.

  • A summons is a notice of a suit commencing. 

What if the documents can’t be handed over, say because the defendant runs away or hides? That means actual service (or “personal service”) isn’t possible but was attempted, which generally leads courts to believe that “substitute service” is necessary.

Substitute service is the next best step, and it could mean handing the legal document to the person’s relative at the same address. The requirements and options vary by jurisdiction. Another option, which is rarely used, is service by publication, which could mean putting notice in a newspaper. Again, the basic point here is to give people notice about their involvement (whether they like it or not) in a litigation.

The majority of service situations are simple. But often enough, complications come up. You will see how problems can happen to you, and how you can avoid and handle them, as you continue to read. 

Software innovation has made service of process convenient

If you’re an individual with a one-off need for service of process, feel free to skip this section so you can focus on how to pick the right provider. But for those of you who regularly deal with service of process, it’s worth stepping back to ask if the old school way is still the right way. 

Most companies in this industry are local and regional. Service and prices are not transparent.  You do not know what is happening with the process server or the accruing fees. To compensate, you have to call and email more often. This sucks away your time and energy.

These are valuable resources, especially in cognitively demanding professions like legal. Litigants miss deadlines and annoy judges (to say the least). 

What is your time worth, then? More than a hassle, more than a time suck. A good paralegal, for example, is a tremendous asset to a legal team. A good paralegal is smart, organized, detail oriented, empathetic, and interested in the law. 

Managing service of process should take as little of a paralegal’s time as possible. That time should be relocated to billables that really count, like drafting pleadings and deal documents. You can use our cost calculator to find out how much time and money a law firm can save using modern software.

Technological innovation has made it possible for anyone dealing with service of process to upload the relevant legal documents and have a request out and claimed by a server for hire within minutes. Completed service and an ironclad affidavit on your computer can happen within a day. 

You’ll learn how, starting with the first stage of the process: Picking a provider.

How it works: Picking the right service of process provider

Before you pick your provider, have your legal document (e.g., complaint) ready to go and know how soon you need it served. A subpoena might have roomy language like a “reasonable” time to show up in court, but lawyers in the jurisdiction will know how long service should really take.

Ask: What do you actually need from someone offering service of process? 

  • Fast, and proper, service of process

  • Ironclad proof of service with a quick turnaround

  • A transparent and reasonable price

We’ll show you how to find the right provider.

How to evaluate a process server

Let’s assume you’re hiring an individual, not a company. What factors matter? For a start, a decent number of states and counties require servers to register in a public database and get a simple license. These requirements help people hold process servers accountable in case there is a mistake or even bad faith behavior. 

Certification requirements are much more rare than a registration and licensing requirement. People vet process servers for quality based on other tools. 

It is best to run a background check, and require:

  • 18 years of age

  • Access to a car

  • A driver’s license

  • Vehicle registration

  • Car insurance

A process serving company will tend to vet its servers for you. In addition to the above, we require servers to be at least age 21 and have a minimum 2 years experience. We ask screening questions and train our servers. 

Speaking of experience, the relevant metric is the number of cases served. We’ll get to picking companies rather than just individuals soon, but if you do use a company as a provider, they should show you metrics for the process server you use on a particular case. 

This should include “serve success rate” (percentage of successful serves) and “average speed of service” (how fast they typically serve from claiming the job to turning proof around). You should also be aware of what state the server normally works in, as the rules of service change by jurisdiction.

In the end, what really separates one process server from another are the virtues of patience and pragmatism. These will eventually show up in the statistics we just discussed, but they are worth mentioning. 

The best process servers know the relevant rules of the jurisdiction inside and out. They know how to talk to people (e.g., neighbors), observe for clues (e.g., trash can in use), and make bets on the best times, places, and ways to reach the person to be served. The best process servers are also patient, waiting as needed. They may even have to run a stakeout, but more on that later.

Let’s move on, to how you should pick a company offering service of process.

How to evaluate a company that offers service of process

If you need service of process on a recurrent basis or you simply want more convenience, your best bet is to pick a company. They will send jobs to servers and handle the process themselves. Instead of picking multiple companies you could also have one supplier, which means you pay less overall, have only one point of contact, and can deal with someone who has the resources to handle a high number of requests in multiple jurisdictions. 

So what should you look for in a company that offers service of process? As with an actual process server, you should know the company’s average serve success rate and speed of service. You’ll want to be able to put in service requests throughout the day, especially if you are in a challenging profession like legal.

Service of Process Pricing Pricing should be transparent at the outset with no hidden fees. That being said, prices vary throughout the country. 

Certain factors can raise the price, such as:

  • Is the defendant out of state? Similarly, does the server have to travel a long distance or to a rural area?

  • Same-day service or rushed

  • Skip trace, where an investigator needs to dig out a valid current address.

  • Number of additional attempts at service

Good Providers Use Technology Software innovation as we discussed has made service of process convenient. Your provider should have a platform that you can pull up whenever you want. Try a demo of it first. To maximize your convenience, the software should have these features:

  • Can you upload multiple legal documents at once?

  • Is there an auto fill function? Does it work well?

  • Does the provider give you an alternate address, not just relying on the one you had in the document that you uploaded?

  • Are you able to access real-time updates from the process server, in case you can help them move the ball faster with less hiccups?

  • Can you live chat with the process server, or do you have to send emails and text messages?

  • Do you have to call in, email, or text message to make a service request? To get a different process server? To get proof of service? 

So you’ve put in your request for service. What happens afterward?

What to look out for while service is in progress

Once you’ve put in a request, your server will head off to do the job or the provider will find someone to claim the task. Usually process serving companies will call around to find a server near them. Often the server they assign will come to your office to pick up the documents. 

Proof’s platform automatically sends a request to its mobile application (sort of like Uber). A server near the address you provided will take the job, sometimes within seconds. They are sent to a nearby FedEx where the document to be served has already been printed. 

People move around a lot, so the initial address you use may not work. Your provider should hand you an alternate, valid address. In the worst case, the target company is a shell or the defendant is evading service. 

These more difficult service situations will require the process server to use quite a bit of information and technology. This includes:

  • Social media

  • Search engines

  • Address and contact information database

  • Conversations and interviews, usually with neighbors

This does not include in-person observation of access ways, streets, and properties. Multiple attempts might be necessary, a stakeout with a long wait time, and potentially substitute service. 

It’s easy for servers to take notes about attempted service on Proof’s mobile app. The platform logs these details so you can review what’s been done, and what you may need to try in the future. There is also a live chat feature, which means your inbox and phone won’t be cluttered with extraneous communications.

Throughout the process, ask if you had to email or call in with your provider. You want to minimize the amount of interruption and keep everything contained to the service software, as much as possible, to save you hassle and time. 

But that’s assuming your process server was responsive. Were they? And if they weren’t, were you easily able to swap them out within the software, or did you (again) have to call and email the company?

If you’re interested in the convenience afforded by Proof’s platform, consider a product demo

Get ironclad proof of service fast to satisfy the court

Once service is complete, you will need proof that it happened in the proper way. Courts require affidavits, essentially sworn testimony on paper. Affidavits showing service of process contain:

  • The name of the person served

  • The location where service happened

  • The date and time of service

  • The name and signature of the person who performed service

Make sure the provider you use has state-specific affidavits ready, as different jurisdictions expect different formats.

If actual service wasn’t possible, and substitute service happened, you still need to show that the server attempted actual service. The affidavit should include details of how service happened or was attempted. 

For ironclad proof of service, your affidavit should have all of the above plus time-stamped photos of service happening and GPS coordinates along with a traditional physical address description.

Your provider should make all of this easy for the server and you. For example, Proof’s mobile app makes it simple for servers to take time-stamped photos. The app automatically generates GPS coordinates and fills out state-specific affidavits with the information typed in by the server. 

These legal documents, routinely held up in legal matters across the country, are automatically sent for print at a nearby FedEx. The server immediately visits the print store, signs the affidavit, and uploads it to the Proof platform for customers to use and file to the court. 

Proof has server boots on the ground and insured cars on the road in all 50 states. Over 4,000 law firms and government agencies use our services. We would be happy to add you to our client list. Consider a product demo. 

Answering common questions about service of process

Let’s run through some core questions briefly and then wrap up.

What is the practical goal of service of process?

  • To let people know that they’re in the thick of a lawsuit and satisfy the constitutional requirement of due process. Litigation has a heavy impact on people’s lives, even just being a witness can involve long-distance travel, lots of stress, and disruption to work and personal life. In a republic like the United States, people have a right to know that they’re, for example, named as a defendant in a lawsuit.

What is the most common form of service of process?

  • Actual service or personal service, where a server physically puts the legal documents in front of the person to be served. This is the clearest way to demonstrate to a court that someone had notice of a lawsuit or their role in it (like a subpoena for testimony). 

Who serves the process?

  • Not the plaintiff, that’s for sure. It has to be a neutral party 18 years or older. It’s not uncommon for a county or state to require registration and a simple license. Certification and training is rarely required, but a good process server has training or at least experience and a good company that offers the service will train its servers. 

What makes a good process server?

  • Patience and pragmatism. Service of process often requires waiting. This can mean varying attempts at service, like trying an address at a different time of day. Servers also have to be crafty, finding ways to get in front of someone to hand them papers.

Service of process is convenient now, so take advantage

You now know three important things as a customer:

  1. How to pick the right process server and provider

  2. How service of process works and what to watch out for

  3. How to make proof of service hold up in court

The most important takeaway from this article is to remember the value of innovation to your personal quality of life. Technology has improved to the point where tasks that once cost us valuable time and drained our energy no longer have to. 

Make sure that you evaluate service of process providers based on how convenient they are. You have better things to do than call and email repeatedly just to get papers served.

Did this article help? You should try a free demo of Proof’s service of process software. Why?

Proof is revolutionizing service of process. Proof is a legal technology company that has created a powerful web-based platform to instantly connect law firms with independent process servers nationwide. Law firms can create electronic serve requests 24/7, receive live updates, see mapped verification of all attempts, and connect directly to servers via our Live Chat feature. Proof’s technology provides time and date-stamped proof that your serve was performed successfully plus a notarized affidavit from the server. Proof offers 1, 3 or 7-day service nationwide as well as internationally. Learn more at proofserve.com.

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