How to serve someone with legal papers

Updated November 22, 2016

Serving someone with legal papers, known as service of process, needs to be accomplished in a variety of civil cases. Anytime you sue someone, you must serve them with a copy of the complaint (sometimes referred to as the petition) and generally the summons. These include divorce cases, evictions, small claims lawsuits and child support cases.

Check the local rules in the jurisdiction where you are filing the lawsuit for service of process requirements. Courts may differ with regard to what method they will accept. Local rules can be found online, at the local library, at a law library or by contacting the court directly.

Send a copy of the documents via certified or registered mail. Go to the post office and fill out the certified or registered mail forms and pay the fee. You will receive a return card in the mail indicating that the documents have been signed for, when they were signed for and who signed for them.

Serve the documents via the Civil Sheriff. Take a copy to the Civil Sheriff's office and pay the required fee. The Civil Sherriff's office will then send a deputy to personally deliver the documents and provide you with a "return of service" signed by the deputy indicating when they were served.

Serve the documents by a process server. A process server is someone that is licensed by the state to serve legal documents. Call the court for a list of licensed process servers or for information on how to find one.

Serve the opposing party by publication. In situations where you cannot locate the opposing party, such as in a divorce where your spouse has left the state and you do not know where they are, you may be able to serve them by publication. You must publish the complaint or petition three times in a local newspaper in the area where your spouse was last known to live. Send a copy of the complaint or petition along with the publication fee to the newspaper and they will publish it according to the local rules. An affidavit may be required stating that you do not know where the respondent is located and have made every reasonable effort to find him.


Service of process can also be accomplished at a work address if you do not have a residence address. When suing a corporation, contact the Secretary of State to find out the resident agent for service of process.


Only use a process server that is licensed by the state.

Things You'll Need

  • Copy of the complaint or petition
  • Copy of the summons
  • Address for the person you need to serve
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About the Author

Renee Booker has been writing professionally since 2009 and was a practicing attorney for almost 10 years. She has had work published on Gadling, AOL's travel site. Booker holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Ohio State University and a Juris Doctorate from Indiana University School of Law.