When filing any documents with the court, the party filing the paper(s) must “serve” the other party with a copy of it. Serving a document means making sure that the person whose rights are being litigated (i.e., fought over) receives a copy of the document. The purpose of service is to make sure that anyone whose rights are at stake has notice of what is going on in court regarding those rights. Keeping all the parties informed of events affecting their rights is a critical aspect of due process.
Service can be accomplished either by personal service or substituted service.
- Personal service is the preferred method of service whereby the party physically hands the paper(s) to the other party. Once the physical exchange has taken place, the other party has been “served.” This method of service is also called in-hand service. See personal service for more information.
- The second method, substituted service, can replace personal service in situations where personal service is not required, such as when a plaintiff serves a summons in in-rem and quasi-in-rem actions. For example, in some states, like California, plaintiffs can substitute personal service of process by leaving a copy of the summons at the person’s “dwelling house, usually place of abode, [or] usual place of business.”
When personal service is not required, substituted service can be accomplished by methods including, but not limited to:
- Leaving the papers with an agent of the recipient;
- Leaving them with an adult of sound mind at the recipient’s home;
- Leaving them at the corporation’s office—or, as courts call it, place of transacting business; or
- Posting the papers in a public place (like a courthouse door) and then mailing copies of the documents to the recipient(s).
[Last updated in August of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]