Going to Court


When you file a lawsuit or subpoena a witness you have to let the other side know. This is done by having them "served" with court documents. Here’s how to make sure it’s done properly.

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If you sue someone or need someone to testify on your behalf, you have to let them know in writing. That way, they'll be able to respond or show up to court when they need to. This is done by having them "served" with court documents. 

Serving papers isn't the same as sending a letter to the person you’re having legal problems with. That’s just another form of communication or negotiation. Serving papers is part of the official court process. If you don't follow the process for service, your complaint or subpoena could get thrown out.

Complete the paperwork

The first step to successful service is completing the court's paperwork. Depending on your court and legal matter, the instructions for service could be a separate form, or included as a part of another one of your court forms. If you can't find service instructions in your paperwork, ask the clerk staff for an "Instructions for Service" form. 

Choose how you want the other side to be notified

On the form, you will need to let the court know how you'd like to have the other side notified. 

  • Certified mail is the most common and least expensive option.
  • Service by the sheriff or bailiff will cost you money. Depending on where you live, it could be a lot. There are cases where this type of service is helpful, like if you're divorcing an abusive spouse. 
  • Service by publication is the most expensive way to have someone served, so only do this if you have no idea where the other side lives and no way of finding out. This can make your case more complicated. If this option seems necessary, try to get advice from a lawyer first.

Follow up with the clerk

After 30 days, you should follow up with the clerk. Call the clerk’s office and give them your case number. Ask if the other side has been served. If they were, plan on attending your hearing as scheduled. If they weren’t, it could be that you have the wrong address. It could also be that service was refused.

If the mail is returned as “Addressee Unknown” or “Insufficient Address,” do what you can to find the right address. Use every resource that you can, including Google and social media. Then you’ll need to file a new "Instructions for Service" form and request certified mail to the new address.

If service is refused or unclaimed, you’ll have to go to the clerk’s office again and fill out another "Instructions for Service" form. This time, request service by regular mail instead of certified mail. 

Follow up again to make sure the papers were sent out. If they were, you don’t need to do anything else except prepare for your hearing. If they weren’t, ask the clerk why and request that they send it again.

If the court can’t serve the other side at all, you will have to ask the clerk to reschedule your hearing. Once you have been given a new date and time, you can repeat the same steps above. But you might be better off having the paperwork delivered by certified mail to the other side's place of work, or spending the extra money for service by sheriff. 

Serving a witness

To get someone to testify for you as a witness, the clerk will give you a subpoena form. A subpoena is a type of court order. There will be space on the subpoena to let the court know how you'd like to serve the witness. 

You have two of the same basic options to serve a witness, either by certified mail or service by the sheriff. 

Also, if your witness lives outside of the county where the court is located, you have to pay your witness a fee for their time and travel. 

Learn more about how to get someone to testify for you. 

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