What is a process server and why do I need one?

A process server is a person who delivers a court order and/or documents that compel a defendant's presence in court. The process server must also show proof that the legal documents were served, which is typically accomplished with notarized proof of service or affidavit of service. If you've been served by a process server, enter your ZIP code below to find a local attorney.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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A professional process server is a person who delivers a court order and/or legal papers that compel a defendant’s presence in court. A process server must actually hand these documents to the defendant in the case. In instances when it is not possible to hand the documents to the defendant directly for personal service, the process server can also give them to management at the defendant’s place of business, or to another adult resident (18 or older) in the defendant’s home, who then becomes the agent of the defendant.

In the U.S. this service process is commonly called being “served papers”, and, as stated above, is typically when a person delivers legal papers in person in an official capacity to defendants. Being served papers is a legal action that you are typically required to act on, even if it is something you have been expecting, such as divorce papers.

The process server cannot be a party to the particular case mentioned in the documents. They must also show proof that the process service is complete, which is typically accomplished with notarized proof of service. In many states, a process server is also required to carry a specific license and in some cases must have insurance as well. Private investigators often provide process services and are typically familiar with the acceptance of service rules and regulations and can provide the proper certificate of service. Improper service will cause the petitioner a delay in the case or motion and may result in them having to take the steps to file papers at the courthouse with the county registrar all over again.

What documents does a process server deliver?

Professional process servers deliver a variety of legal documents, including writs, subpoenas to testify in court, a summons to appear in court, and formal complaints. In addition to serving these documents, these professionals can also assist with filing appropriate documents in court, retrieving documents for you, and helping you track down a defendant.

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What Happens If a Process Server Cannot Find Someone?

An individual process server is expected to put in a reasonable amount of effort to serve a formal notice. For various reasons, this isn’t always possible. For example, if you’re trying to file for divorce, one party might avoid the process as much as possible. The server has to demonstrate reasonable efforts have been made after which the judge can escalate the situation.

Judges can authorize public notice, service by mail to known work or home addresses, etc. In short, a process server’s traditional role is just the first step. If an avoidant receiver or an employer’s “no service policy” stands in the way, judges will make reasonable accommodations. Of course, service by publication puts your problems in the public view, which most prefer to avoid. 

When Do You Need A Process Server?

Whether or not you need process services depends on your specific case and the laws governing your case in your state and municipality. In more serious cases (that is, cases involving larger sums of money than what amounts to “small claims”) or when you are subpoenaing someone to appear in court, you may need this type of service. If you’ve hired a lawyer to represent you, they will generally take care of the details of finding an agent for service and filing motions as needed to move the process along.

If you are not sure, contact your attorney or a local process service agency to determine the specifics in your case. Process servers are often well-versed in which cases require their services, and they can help to point you in the right direction. It’s very important to know the legal process. Failing to use a process server when you need one can delay your case, or worse, your case could be thrown out on procedural grounds. An unapproved substituted service could end the same way.

The purpose of a process server is to make sure the defendant is notified and given the chance to come to court and offer a defense. The U.S. Constitution requires that no defendant be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of the law, and making sure an individual is aware of the fact that he or she has to come to court is an important part of due process. If the defendant is properly served, knows they are supposed to come to court, and does not show up, the plaintiff can get a default judgment against the defendant (in other words, they can be declared the automatic winner). Thus, process servers perform the important function of protecting defendants’ rights.

How Much Does A Process Server Cost?

Hiring a process server can cost anywhere from $20 to $100, depending on how many attempts the process server must make to serve the defendant the particular documents. Rates can also vary greatly from state to state, with national averages for process server fees being between $45 and $75. If your attorney has to pay for service by publication or another alternative, filing the appropriate motions and then paying for the ad will cost more. Whatever documents you have to serve, it is essential to serve them properly.

The requirement to hire a process server is only one of the many rules of civil procedure that govern the process of suing someone in court. It is always a good idea to hire an experienced attorney when you are filing a lawsuit to answer your questions and make sure that you follow all procedures and so that you don’t make a mistake that will jeopardize your case.

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