How to serve legal documents

Updated March 23, 2017

There are strict rules for serving legal process on a party to a lawsuit. Acceptable methods of serving legal process include constructive service, mailed notice and acknowledgement of receipt, personal service, substituted service and service by publication. Service of process may be effectuated by a process server or a sheriff’s office in the jurisdiction where the real property is located. Special rules apply when serving members of the armed forces and government agencies. Court rules may require service within a specified time period. The original summons should be returned to court after service of the documents.

Start by filing a lawsuit or other legal proceeding either by yourself or representation by a licensed attorney.

Determine the acceptable methods of serving the entity or persons. These can include mail and acknowledgement of receipt, personal or constructive service, substituted service or service by publication. Proceedings involving possession and/or ownership of real property such as evictions, foreclosures or actions for adverse possession may require that you post a conspicuous notice on the property and thereafter mailing a certified mail notice to all occupants of the real property.

Contact your state’s secretary of state to determine who the proper agent for service of process is. All corporations must designate a person or company that can accept service of legal process for their corporation. Generally, you must either serve the agent for service of process or serve a person apparently in charge of the office and send a copy of the documents to the company’s main office.

Serve individuals and sole proprietorships by personal service, if possible. If your process server has unsuccessfully attempted to serve documents personally, you may usually effectuate service by leaving copies of the documents with any person age 18 or older who resides at the party’s residence and sending a copy of the documents to that party via certified mail. If you have diligently and unsuccessfully attempted to locate a party, you can usually get the court’s approval to serve the party by publishing a notice in a “newspaper of general circulation.”

Serve a governmental entity by whatever method required by your state or required by the specific federal agency. In some cases, you may be required to serve the state’s attorney general or the head of the agency you are suing.


You should provide as much information as possible to your process server. If a party to be served isn’t home or at their office, the number of attempts to serve may result in you having to pay additional fees to the process server. Also, be sure that the process server has sent a copy of the declaration or proof of service to the court.


Errors in service process can be fatal to a lawsuit. You must meticulously follow the laws and court rules relative to service of process.

Things You'll Need

  • Process server/fees
  • Publication of summons, if applicable
  • Postage
  • Court forms/legal documents
  • Proof of publication, if applicable
  • Proof of service form
  • Photocopies
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About the Author

Roger Jewell has been a professional writer for over 20 years. He is a published author for both the Graduate Group and PublishAmerica, and is also a freelance writer. Jewell is a former attorney and private investigator. He earned his law degree from the University of La Verne School of Law.