Court cases begin when a plaintiff files a complaint with the court and properly serves what is called a summons alongside the complaint to the defendant. A complaint is filed with the court and sets forth any legal claims against the defendant, while the summons is meant to provide information to the defendant regarding the court case, such as where and when the defendant must appear to avoid a default judgment.
The method in which a summons and complaint, as well as later pleadings, are delivered to a defendant is referred to as service of process. Courts are constitutionally required to provide service of process and many states have a catch-all provision to effect service of process.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, as well as the document being served, different types of service of process are allowed, including:
- personal service
- domiciliary service
- service by mail
- service by publication
- by any method prescribed by court order
See the chart below for general definitions of these processes.
||Service to an individual defendant personally: Depending on the state, process servers may be private or public entities. Although this is typically allowed to be accomplished anywhere at any time, some states do not allow personal service to occur on holidays or Sundays.
||Service to an individual defendant’s usual place of abode–either delivered to the defendant or someone of suitable age and of sound mind.
||Service through mail is typically achieved through certified mail but may also be achieved through first-class mail in some states. Mailing the defendant a waiver for service of process may also be allowed but will not complete service of process unless the defendant returns the signed waiver.
||Service through publication is usually achieved through sequential publications over a period prescribed by the court or statute. Following this period, service of process is considered complete.