Notice to the Other Party: Service of the Summons and Complaint

The next step in litigation after starting the lawsuit is to give notice to the party being sued, the defendant, of the lawsuit.  In broad terms, this would seem to be a simple step. After all, in serving the summons and complaint, the plaintiff is only delivering a copy of those documents to the defendant. However, there are elaborate rules governing this step, and this step involves two sub-steps: the delivery of the summons and complaint, and the filing of proof of service. Failure to comply with the rules governing either sub-step, including the failure to comply with deadlines, might result in the plaintiff losing the entire lawsuit.

There is good reason for the elaborate set of rules. The service of the summons and complaint is what gives the court the authority to order the defendant to do or not do what the court believes is required by the law. As lawyers would say, service gives the court personal jurisdiction over the defendant. Before using its power, the court wants to be assured that the defendant had adequate notice of the fact that the plaintiff was bringing a lawsuit. The rules are designed to provide that assurance. In other words, the rules are designed to protect the rights of the defendant, including the right to be heard on claims being made by the plaintiff.

In most cases, the plaintiff uses a professional to affect service of the summons and complaint. These professionals are called process servers, and they charge a fee for their services. Although the precise fee will depend on how difficult it is to serve the summons and complaint, generally, the cost of serving a summons and complaint on one defendant is no more than about $100, and often less. For a fee, most process servers will take care of the filing of the summons and complaint, the service of the summons and complaint, and the preparation and filing of the proof of service, usually in the form of an affidavit of service. The process server will make sure that the plaintiff gets the clerk’s receipt, a copy of the filed summons and complaint (actually, the plaintiff gets the original issued summons), and a copy of the proof of service..

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