From the Courtroom to Your Door: Who Serves Court Papers and How?

Ryan Duffy
Author : Ryan Duffy
3 min read

When it comes to legal papers, the message is just as important as the messenger. The person you choose to serve papers on the opposing party in your case can be instrumental in keeping your case moving forward. If you choose the wrong person to serve papers on the other party, that one bad choice can create numerous other legal headaches that will stall the progress of your case.

Upon an initial glance, it does not seem as if serving process requires any special knowledge or skill. Those who have experienced trouble in serving a party with notice in previous lawsuits know better. The person you choose to serve papers should possess certain skills and knowledge in addition to meeting the legal requirements to serve process in your state.

Serving Process Explained

When you file a lawsuit, the party or parties who are suing need to be given notice of what your lawsuit is about, where it has been filed, and what they need to do if they want to contest it. All of this information is contained in various documents that together are called “process.” “Serving” process is basically delivering those documents to the party you are suing.

However, serving legal process on someone is not like delivering a pizza or a package from Amazon. Each state has passed laws that describe not only who may serve process on another person but how that process is to be served. Failing to follow any of these requirements can be grounds for a court to find that your attempts at serving the other party were not sufficient.

The Court Found My Service was Insufficient. Now What?

In some lawsuits, time is of the essence. You want your case to proceed quickly before evidence is lost and witnesses forget what they saw. Serving the other party with process is an essential part of moving your case forward. Unless the court is satisfied that you have complied with the laws concerning service of process, your case may not advance to any substantive hearing.

If there is a long stretch of time following the filing of your case and you still have not adequately served the other party, the court may consider dismissing your case. At the very least, such a move can add additional delay and cost to resolving your case as you would need to start the entire lawsuit process over again. At worst, a dismissal could spell the end of your claim if the statute of limitations has already expired.

People Authorized to Serve Process

Your state’s laws will ultimately govern who serves process on the parties in a civil case. Most every state allows some or all of the following individuals to serve court papers:

Sheriff’s Deputies and Constables

First, your county’s law enforcement officers are empowered to serve court papers within their county. Suppose you live in Johnson County, Kansas, and are trying to serve a party who lives in the same county. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office’s civil process servers could attempt to serve that party with your court papers.

If the party lives in another county, then that county’s sheriff’s office would be the one to attempt service. Using the above example, suppose the party you are trying to serve lives in Shawnee County, Kansas. The Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office would be the agency with the jurisdiction to serve papers on that party.

In most cases, the sheriff’s office will charge a small fee for attempting to serve process on a party. Depending on your jurisdiction and the agency’s policies, a sheriff’s deputy or constable may attempt to serve a party personally several times before attempting residential service. Your sheriff’s or constable’s office will not usually attempt other forms of service for you.

When you choose your local sheriff’s or constable’s office, you have the benefit of process servers who are generally experienced professionals serving your court documents. Not only this, but your sheriff’s deputy or constable will serve papers in their uniform and with all the trappings of their office. Doing this communicates to the other party that your court papers and lawsuit are legitimate and should be taken seriously.

However, using the sheriff’s office or constable’s office to serve your papers may not be the best option for your case. First, you must know the jurisdiction in which the other party lives or has their principle residence. This is because a sheriff’s deputy or constable cannot leave their own geographical jurisdiction and attempt to serve court documents anywhere else.

Even if the other party is found living just one town over in the next county, the sheriff’s deputy cannot leave their jurisdiction to serve your papers. Instead, the deputy will file a return with the court indicating that they were not able to locate and serve the other party anywhere within the county. This can add time and expense to your efforts to serve the other party if you must track them down.

Any Person over the Age of 18

You could also employ a person over the age of 18 to serve the other party. This includes, in some states, being able to serve the other party yourself. An individual of legal age who is a private citizen is not bound by any geographical or jurisdictional limits. If the person found the other party whom you are trying to serve one county over or halfway across the country, they would be legally able to serve that other party.

Having an adult serve your court papers on the other party may be cheaper and quicker than relying on the sheriff’s office. Unlike a sheriff’s or constable’s office, which may have dozens of cases in which service is needed, the individual you employ to serve process will likely only have your case and perhaps a few others for which they need to serve process. Not only this, but you negotiate the fee with the adult for their services in serving process. This could result in cost savings to you, especially if the other party is not easily located.

Finally, a private person acting as your process server can often attempt other methods of service beyond just personal service and residential service. They would be limited only by the agreement you make with them. So, for example, if you want this person to attempt service by certified mail if they cannot achieve service via other methods, then this person could do so.

However, a private individual may not be as familiar with the laws of service of process in your state. As a result, they may make missteps and errors along the way that render your service ineffective. Moreover, a private individual acting as a process server may not understand the limitations on their ability to serve someone. A process server, for example, has no authority to break into someone’s home in order to serve papers on them.

A private person fulfilling the role of a process server for you may commit this or other criminal acts, creating more legal headaches for you. For example, a process server cannot break into someone’s home or damage their property in the course of trying to serve them. A process server acting on your behalf may entangle you with their activities and cause you to divert your time and attention from your own lawsuit.

A Professional Process Server

Hiring a professional process server combines some of the best features of both of the foregoing options. This is a private individual who either works for themselves or as part of a company. You hire this person to serve your court paperwork on the other party in your case. Like any other private individual, a professional process server are not bound by geographical limits and can serve papers anywhere in the United States.

Additionally, these individuals control how many cases they serve process for. As a result, they will often be able to serve the other party in your case more quickly than relying on a sheriff’s deputy.

Finally, like a sheriff’s deputy who is knowledgeable about serving papers, a professional process server will be familiar with your state’s laws regarding process of service. This includes knowing what they can and cannot do in order to serve papers on someone. Thus, you would not have the risk of a professional process server committing a criminal act or civil wrong that would cause you legal complications.

Give Attention to Who Serves Your Court Papers

When you decide to sue someone, you might give considerable attention to the allegations of your suit, ensuring the papers are filed correctly with the court. You should give equal attention to who will serve those papers on the other party, as your choice of process server can have an impact on how and how quickly your case is able to proceed.

Oftentimes, the safest option for serving papers is to hire a professional process server who is familiar with your state’s laws regarding service of process.

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Ryan Duffy
Ryan Duffy

Associate Attorney

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