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Definition of Process Server

Service of process is the procedure employed to give legal notice to a person (such as a defendant) of a court or administrative body's exercise of its jurisdiction over that person so as to enable that person to respond to the proceeding before the court, body or other tribunal. Usually, notice is furnished by delivering a set of court documents (called "process") to the person to be served.


Each jurisdiction has rules regarding the means of service of process. Typically, a summons and related documents must be served upon the defendant personally, or in some cases upon another person of suitable age and discretion at the person's residence or place of business or employment. In some cases, service of process may be effected through the mail as in some small claims court procedures. In exceptional cases, other forms of service may be authorized by procedural rules or court order, including service by publication when an individual cannot be located in a particular jurisdiction. Proper service of process initially establishes personal jurisdiction of the court over the person served. If the defendant ignores further pleadings or fails to participate in the proceedings, then the court or administrative body may find the defendant in default and award relief to the claimant, petitioner or plaintiff. Service of process must be distinguished from service of subsequent documents (such as pleadings and motion papers) between the parties to litigation. Service of process in cases filed in the United States district courts is governed by Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In England and Wales, the rules governing service of documents are contained within Part 6 of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998. Service on a defendant who resides in a country outside the jurisdiction of the Court must comply with special procedures prescribed under the Hague Service Convention, if the recipient's country is a signatory. Service on defendants in many South American countries and some other countries is effected through the Letter Rogatory process. Where a defendant's whereabouts are unknown, the Court may permit service by publication, usually in a newspaper. In the past in many countries, people did not have the right to know that there were legal proceedings against them. In some cases, they would only find out when magistrates showed up with the sheriff and seized their property, sometimes throwing them into debtor's prison until their debts were paid. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution prohibit the federal and state governments from depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Therefore the process server is "serving" the recipient with notice of their constitutional right to due process of the law. In ancient times, the service of a summons was considered a royal act that had serious consequences. It was a summons to come to the King's Court and to respond to the demand of a loyal subject. In ancient Persia, failure to respond to the King's summons meant a sentence of death. Today the penalty for ignoring a summons may be entry of a default money judgment that can subsequently be enforced.

Manner of service

Personal service by process server
Personal service is service of process directly to the (or a) party named on the summons, complaint or petition. In most lawsuits in the United States, personal service is required to prove service. Most states allow Substituted service in almost all lawsuits unless you are serving a corporation, LLC, LLP, or other business entity; in those cases, personal service must be achieved by serving (in hand) the documents to the "Registered Agent" of a business entity. Some states (Florida) do not require that the documents actually be handed to the individual. In California and most other states, the documents must be visible to the person being served, i.e., not in a sealed envelope. If the individual refuses to accept service, flees, closes the door, etc., and the individual has been positively identified as the person to be served, documents may be "drop" served, and it is considered a valid service.

Common law systems

In most common law systems, the service of process is effectuated by a registered process server who must be an adult and (in most jurisdictions) not a party to the litigation. Most jurisdictions require or permit process to be served by a court official, such as a sheriff, marshal, constable or bailiff. There may be licensing requirements for private process servers, as is the case in New York City, Alaska, Arizona, California, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, and Oklahoma. Texas process servers are currently certified by order of the Supreme Court and are regulated through the Process Server Review Board, consisting of members of the industry authorized by the Supreme Court. Other jurisdictions, such as Georgia, require a court order allowing a private person to serve process. Many private investigators perform process serving duties. Texas also has a required training course which must be completed prior to certification. An example of such a license would be in Rhode Island, where an applicant must complete 90 days of training with a constable that has 'full powers'. Once the 90 days of training is complete, a test is given at the local courthouse from the laws included in the constable manual. Once an applicant passed the written exam, one will be scheduled for an oral interview with the disciplinary board. If they find the applicant to be competent, they will pass a recommendation to the chief judge who will then swear in one with 'limited power'. These constables can only serve within the county they are appointed. After one year, a limited power constable can apply for his/her full powers to arrest, evict, and be able to serve state wide. In New York, personal process is required in divorce and similar matrimonial law actions, absent court permission. Specific practice is that: The defendant must be personally served with the divorce papers, unless the court grants some other means of service. Note that there are special requirements for service of process in a divorce action. See CPLR 308 and DRL 232.
J. Douglas Barics, attorney.

Civil law systems

In some places such as France, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, China, the province of Quebec, and the state of Louisiana which follow the continental legal system, service of process is performed by a huissier de justice (gerechtsdeurwaarder in Dutch), either in person or through the mail. In some of these places there are two different types of service - signification and notification. The huissier is only responsible for signification, the more formal type of service.

Substituted service

When an individual party to be served is unavailable for personal service, many jurisdictions allow for substituted service. Substituted service allows the process server to leave service documents with another responsible individual such as cohabiting adults. Under the Federal Rules, substituted service may only be made at the abode or dwelling of the defendant. FRCP 4. California, Illinois, and many other U.S. jurisdictions require that in addition to substituted service, the documents be mailed to the recipient. Substituted service often requires a serving party show that ordinary service is impracticable and that substituted service will reach the party and effect notice. In addition, substituted service may be affected through public notice followed by sending the documents by Certified Mail.

Service by mail

Service by mail is permitted by most U.S. jurisdictions for service on defendants located in other U.S. states or foreign countries. Service by mail is not available if the country of destination has filed objections to service by mail pursuant to the multinational Hague Service Convention.

Voluntary acceptance of service (United States)

As a substitute for personal service by a process server, many jurisdictions encourage voluntary acceptance of service, also called waiver of service (although other ways exist by which service of process may be waived). The summons and other documents are mailed to the party to be served, along with a request to sign and return a form of acceptance of service, or acknowledgment of service. Acceptance of service means that the served party agrees to acknowledge receipt of the complaint or petition without the need to engage a process server. Failure to accept service voluntarily means that the party to be served will be liable for the cost of effecting formal service, even if the plaintiff's action is otherwise unsuccessful. In U.S. federal court, and in many state courts, voluntary acceptance of service entitles the defendant more time to file an answer.

International service

Main article: Hague Service Convention International service of foreign judicial and extrajudicial documents is governed in general by the 1965 Hague Service Convention. Prior to the enactment of the Hague Service Convention, service of process in civil cases was generally effected by a Letter Rogatory, a formal request from the court in the country where proceedings were initiated or underway to a court in another country where the defendant resided. This procedure generally required the use of consular and diplomatic channels as the request had to be made to the foreign minister (Secretary of State in the United States) of the defendant's country by the foreign minister of the originating court. Since 1965, member states designate a central authority for service of process and requests go directly there. In addition, many states allow some type of service directly by mail or personal service by a person otherwise authorized to service process without involvement of local courts.

Agent for acceptance of service

In some instances, delivery to an agent for acceptance of service or "Registered Agent" can substitute for personal service on the principal party to be served. The Registered Agent is a person or company authorized in advance to accept service on behalf of the served party. For example, most corporations are required by local law to have an agent for acceptance of service in each jurisdiction where they are active. The identity of the agent for service can usually be ascertained from company filings with appropriate state agencies.

Return of service

Once service of process has been effected, the responsible officer or process server must typically file a return of service or proof of service or "Affidavit of Service" with the court (or convey one to the plaintiff to file with the court). The return of service indicates the time and place at which service was effected, the person served, and any additional information needed to establish that service was properly made. It is signed by the process server, and operates as prima facie evidence that service of process was effectively made.

Process serving laws (United States)

Many states have process serving laws that govern the way service of process is effected, the licensing requirements to effect service, the forms to be used and the time deadlines that service of process may be accomplished upon individual respondents and corporations. For example, in New York service of process may require licensing of the process server. Generally, there are specific procedures and rules for most courts, from local small claims courts to United States District courts. Each court has specific rules, forms, guidelines and procedures which must be followed in order to successfully effect service of process. Failure to follow these guidelines may deem the attempted service improper. Indeed many defendants in court hearings use the affirmative defense of "I was not served" as an often successful line of defense in any lawsuit. Not surprisingly, this defense tends to be effective in many cases because service of process upon defendant did not follow legal procedure. As for United States federal courts, service of process rules are in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, upon which most state service of process laws are based.


In nearly every state of the United States, process servers are restricted from trespassing on property as a means of serving process. Such invasions, no matter how innocuous, are regarded as not only invalid, but illegal and may result in penalties for offenders. Gated communities and apartment buildings have created a difficulty for process servers, however, most are required to allow process servers to enter them. In California, "Registered Process Servers" are granted "...a limited exemption against trespassing." This allows servers to enter a private property for a reasonable period of time to attempt service of process. Similarly, in California, gated communities which are "...staffed by a security guard, or where access is controlled, must allow a Registered Process Server to enter for service of process upon presenting valid identification, and indicating to which address the process server is going." This does not prevent the security guard from contacting the resident and alerting them that a process server is on his way to their residence. In Washington State, "Registered Process Servers" are granted a limited exemption or affirmative defense against trespassing:
The actor was attempting to serve legal process which includes any document required or allowed to be served upon persons or property, by any statute, rule, ordinance, regulation, or court order, excluding delivery by the mails of the United States. This defense applies only if the actor did not enter into a private residence or other building not open to the public and the entry onto the premises was reasonable and necessary for service of the legal process.
RCW 9A.52.090 (4)


Most states have a deadline for completing service of process after filing of the summons and complaint. In New York, for example, service must be completed in 120 days after filing for almost all cases, and Hawaii State Circuit Court rule 28 requires service in a civil lawsuit must be effected within 6 months from commencing suit.

Dies non juridicum

Some states prohibit the delivery or serving of documents on Sundays, holidays, and/or election days (dies non juridicum). However, some states will allow the service of documents under special circumstances. One such circumstance is when the service of process is pursuant to a court order. According to various laws, service of process cannot be performed on Sundays in Florida (unless with a court order), Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee (unless with a court order), Texas, Virginia, or West Virginia. It can also not be performed on election days or at a place of religious service on Sunday in Michigan, or on holidays in Minnesota. Finally, in New York, process cannot be served on Saturday upon a person who keeps Saturday as holy time.

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