How to Serve Papers to Someone You Can’t Find

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After a plaintiff files a claim, they are responsible for serving papers to each defendant. This is known as the service of process and is required before the initial proceedings of any lawsuit. The service of process ensures that each defendant is made aware of any claims filed against them. Defendants must also be notified of the day, time, and place of the lawsuit so they will be able to properly defend themselves.

Under the federal laws of civil procedure, papers must be served in the same state that the lawsuit is filed in. Each individual defendant listed in the claim must be served by the plaintiff.

Plaintiffs have multiple options when it comes to serving defendants. If the plaintiff does not know the defendant personally or does not know the physical location of the defendant, the service of process is often more challenging. If you’re unable to find the defendant listed in your claim, here’s how to complete the service of process.

Certified mail

Most states allow plaintiffs to serve papers by mailing them to the defendant via certified mail with a return receipt requested. In fact, some states require plaintiffs to attempt the service of process through certified mail before pursuing any other methods of service. In most costs, the court clerk will mail the papers to the defendant and charge the plaintiff a small fee, which can be added to the plaintiff’s judgment after prevailing in the case.

The majority of states require the defendant to sign the papers in order for service to be considered effective. If you’re not sure how to reach the defendant, performing a free online background check can help you determine the defendant’s physical address or connect you to someone who can complete personal service. 

Make sure to send a copy of papers to the defendant’s last known address via certified mail, as well as regular first-class mail. If the mail is returned to you, save the mail and the return receipt to show that the mail was undeliverable. Make sure to also contact the defendant’s last known place of employment, check with the DMV, and check with the area’s criminal court records

Personal service

Plaintiffs who do not know the defendant personally have the option of using personal service to complete the service of process. If you don’t know someone who personally knows the defendant, choosing someone to complete personal service is more difficult. 

Consider hiring a sheriff, marshal, or constable who can perform personal service. Although every state allows law officers to serve defendants, not all officers serve civil subpoenas. Using personal service often requires a fee, but the fee will be added to your judgment if you win the case.

Additionally, private process services, which are listed online and in the yellow pages, can be hired to serve the defendant. In some states, any adult not named in the lawsuit who is over 18 years old—whether they’re a relative, a friend, or a stranger—can also serve the defendant. Before allowing any adult to serve the defendant, make sure to check with your state laws, as some states require individuals to be approved by the court before serving papers.

If all else fails, speak with your lawyer to file a motion to serve by publication or posting. Whether you need a personal injury lawyer or a divorce attorney, be sure to hire a reputable lawyer who has experience serving defendants that are difficult to reach. Showing the court that you made reasonable efforts—from certified mail to hiring a private process service—will make it easier for you to file a motion to serve by publication or posting.