You see process servers do some pretty crazy things in movies and TV, but what is a process server allowed to do, actually? Continue reading to find out.

Know the Rules: What Is a Process Server Allowed to Do?

process server is an individual who has been hired to deliver legal documents.

They can also file court papers and work to retrieve court documents.

Process servers exist in the United States because individuals and entity’s involved in legal action are required to have “due process.” This is the privilege of letting them know that there will be a court hearing involving them. Typically, this involves a civil lawsuit, family law proceedings and sometimes delivering documents pertaining to a criminal case.

The process servers must deliver papers to an individual, a business, an entity’s representative or lawyer. In the latter case, they can deliver evidence or information from the opposing party’s counsel.

You may have seen process servers on television and in movies. This may have led you to ask, “What is a process server allowed to do?”

In this article, we’ll go over some of the do’s and don’ts of a process server’s job.

For now, we’ll keep it specific to service of process in California. Be aware that there are variations in each state.

What is a Process Server Allowed to Do?: Serving Papers

A process server’s main function is to give notice to the opposing party of a pending action, so that party, knows about it and can respond to the matter. He or she will typically show up at the defendant’s door or at their work and hand them the papers. This is to let a party know someone has filed a complaint against them.

Depending on the state, there are a few complex rules about serving the papers. In some states, a process server may trespass to gain access to the defendant or his or her property. In other states, these warnings cannot be ignored.

 

Breaking and Entering

A process server may not break into a home or business to serve papers, no matter the state’s rules on trespassing. Instead, they will have to come back to the home or place of business another time to see if the defendant is available then.

 

If a Defendant Does Not Answer the Door

A process server cannot compel a defendant to answer the door. In some cases, people who know a lawsuit has been filed against them will attempt to avoid service. They may erroneously believe that this means the case will simply go away. It won’t.

However, a process server can still not force someone to open the door. He or she will have to come back on another date if the defendant refuses to open the door.

 

A Process Server Cannot Pretend to Be Law Enforcement

Although you may have seen a process server do something similar on television, they cannot pretend to be part of the law enforcement. They cannot tell a party who refuses to open the door that they are the police, sheriff or any member of law enforcement and that they need them to open the door.

 

Getting Creative

A process server may be required to get creative when it comes to locating defendants who have decided to make themselves scarce. This may include waiting outside the home until they leave so that the process server can serve the papers. It may also include waiting outside a workplace or friends or families home to do the same thing, this is known as a stakeout.

But a process server may not break state law to do so. This means he or she cannot serve papers or gain access to a building under false pretenses. He or she must be forthcoming with who they are and why they’re looking for the defendant but being general about who you are and why you are there is allowed.

 

Mailing Papers

This is generally not available in California except for very specific documents or circumstances, like service by Special Court Order. This is much more common in several other states, so make sure to check your specific states laws.

 

Leaving Papers with Someone Over the Age of 18

If the defendant is continually evasive, you can leave the papers with someone else in the household over the age of 18. You can also leave the papers with someone in his or her place of employment. This will count as service only if the document you are serving allows for this or the judge has signed of on a Special Court Order.

 

If I’m Being Served, Do I Have to Open the Door?

If you’re being served papers, you do not have to answer the door legally. You can call the police if the process server is trespassing and this is not legal in your state.

You should know that even if you do not open the door, this does not mean you can hide from or evade the lawsuit.

 

Alternatives for Inability to Serve

A process server may spend several hours or days attempting to serve an individual. If the person is particularly evasive, he or she will submit a sworn affidavit saying they were unable to serve the defendant.

In this case, there are a few ways that the court can go about service. In some states, putting an ad for service in the paper will suffice. This shows the party was served via public notice.

At this point, the defendant is considered served and the process server no longer needs to continue to hunt down the defendant and can move on.

A defendant can drag on lawsuit proceedings initially by attempting to avoid service. But after a certain amount of time, the court will not continue to allow it.

Bottom line: if you have someone attempting to serve you papers, they will find a way to do so. It is best to accept them and begin to build your case with your defense team.

 

Process Servers and Their Rights

“What is a process server allowed to do?” is a question for which the answer varies tremendously from state-to-state. You should not assume that one law goes for all 50 states. If you have questions about your rights as a defendant or process server, it is best to research your own state’s laws.

For more information on process servers and the law, visit our site or call us today to discuss your specific needs at 1-510-797-9996.

Jason Burke

Jason Burke is a self-made man who knows that hard work pays off. He has dedicated his life to helping other people with their legal problems, and he loves every minute of it!

He has over 24 years of experience in the field, all of which are focused on serving papers. Jason serves papers regulatory and for the last couple of years has served almost everything in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Western Contra Costa Counties himself.

He prepares every single proof of service that D&R Legal Process Service produces to ensure that clients receive the highest quality they have come to expect from them.

70 Responses

    1. It Depends… what type of documents they are, what court they are filed out of, wheather or not they were talking to some one or could see someone old enough to serve the documents to and they refused service.

        1. It would depend on what kind of documents you were served with, what court or state the action was served in. If the subject or another resident were really home and just wouldn’t answer the door. I would need more informaton on this question.

      1. What does it mean if the process server serves you papers at your work and your not there are they allowed to leave them with the front office and they give them to you. Is that legal in California and is that considered as the person being server. Because it was not directly served to him or her.

  1. What if they never serve you? I have twice been notified that I would be served between certain hour and no one showed up! (They left a phone message notifying me.) I called the phone number they left for information. The person answering told me the attempt had been made. When I explained that it hadn’t been, she scheduled another one for yesterday. Still, no show!

    I feel like this is an attempt to get me to NOT be at court and have a summary judgement against me. (On a credit card I never had that is from a clam 14 years ago, well past the statute of limitations.)

    What can I do? I am in Montana.

    1. Most Process Servers Don’t call ahead to schedule appointments to serve people but if you are willing to set an appointment with them, then I guess it’s worth it. What is the Process Server Company name? Might be best to email me directly through the website.

  2. Someone called looking for my son in law whom I have no contact with. They said they are trying to locate him. I told them I don’t know where he is. They said they would come to my apartment to look for him. Can I get in trouble if I tell them to get lost? I told them on the phone not to come, and if they do, there would be trouble

    1. Probably not get in trouble but if you honestly don’t know where he is and he does not live there. Just tell them that. If they are serving papers on him, the more helpfull you are the more likely they will believe you and likely to not come back looking for him. Thinking that you are lying to them and helping him avoid service.

  3. Can a process sever who is now my neighbor openly discuss a civil case which he served papers to me on 2 years ago at a prior address? Are there any ethical barriers here ? While it is public record the case is out of another state and nobody would have reason to know about it without his gossiping.

      1. Is it illiage to run up to a person with small kids,don’t say anything ,scare them so they run and the person Chase’s them ,while the their screaming and throw a paper and leave.im assuming it’s a court paper like child custody

        1. Likely not illegal but why it was done that way would really depend on what has happend previously. Are you avoiding service, have they attempted to serve you previously and you refused to answer the door. Generaly a process serve does not need to chase you. They would announce service and drop the dox at your feet or if you are in a car put the documents under the winshield wipers, tell you they are legal papers and leave.

          I did recently have a simular situation. I started walking up to a subject’s car, who was avoiding serivce and they started backing the car up. I then had to run and catch the car, put the dox under the winshield wiper and then start walking back to my car. Their kids were likely in the car, they got out of the car yelling at me but they caused the entire action. Had they answered the door previously, none of this would have happened and the service would have looked a lot more like a delivery.

          I got lucky that I was still sitting at the community gate talking to the landlord, and they drove up, probably taking the kids to dinner. Even if they had just stopped, rolled down the window to take the documents it would have looked a lot more civilized, but they didn’t and they got served anyways.

  4. What happens if the process server gave papers to a guest at the house and the next day they left but the homeowner that is being served is out on vacation? Is this way still properly being served even if they are not in town.

    1. It might depend on the state you are located in and the type of documents that are being served but probably not a valid service. Generally sub-service needs to be completed on a resident of the home. In California you are considered a “Resident” if you have lived at an address for 30 days. But some states allow service on “a person of suitable age and discretion.” You should reach out to a local process server or an attorney in your state and ask that question.

  5. A friend of mine wants me to serve someone cause I’m the only person they never met… am I allowed to put the papers in a box and say they delivered a package to the “wrong address”? (I’m in Colorado if you need to know)

    1. I would not do it that way, they person may never open the box or just claim they did not know there were legal papers inside the box. I would reccomend highering a process server in Colorado or at least calling them to see what you are allowed to do in your state.

    2. No. You cannot do that. You must serve the person directly or another person over the age of 18 in the home. If you don’t want to do this for your friend, tell them to call a process server.

  6. Hey so i can’t afford a process server so my friend went to serve papers she was home looked out the window and never open the door.my friend waited for 10 minutes before leaving he knocked and knocked but no response..
    Well she did this alotif times even with police tried to serve her. What could I do to get her served. I tried everything that I Kno of..
    I live Seattle Washington

    1. I would recommend contacting a Washington Process Server, they would be able to tell you what valid service is in your state. In California we would have served it assuming we could verify the person looking out the window was the subject. But I don’t know the specific rules for the State of Washington.

  7. Is it valid if the server leaves the papers with a person older than 18 such as a secretary in the first attempt knowing that defendant will avoid service, and continues to attempt personal service, then file a substituted service?

    1. It depends on the documents you are serving and what court, the documents are issued out of. In California, a Summons and Complaint for example, this could possibly be done like this. There is nothing in the code section stating what order the service and the diligence needs to be completed in but you could have issues with the default clerk, issuing the judgment. Most Process Servers don’t complete service this way and there is currently no case law supporting service like this to my knowledge. What is more common is one server attempts the service and establishes proper diligence, then later a second process server attempts service and sub-serves the documents on their first attempt. Using the previous servers attempts as that established the “Diligent Attempts.”

  8. Can a server stop and question customers and employees at our place of business? That is looking for the boss to serve but questioning everyone and making customers uncomfortable. We are in California. Thank you!

  9. I’m in cali, a process server served an unlawful detainer to my mom (I’m the defendant) I was sick she tried twice to serve no luck nd on the third time my mom (who is not named on the summons) answered the door and was served. Process server said she personally served me. How do I notify someone that she’s lying ?

    1. That would be a question for an attorney but what you are describing sounds like Substitute Service, leaving the documents with someone other than the named party after due diligence. Did your mom confirm to the server that she was you when she spoke to the server by mistake? What makes you think that the server believes they personally served you, have you seen the proof of service? You would likely file a Motion to Quash the service if they did in fact say that they personally served you and you were not. Might be best to give me a call or shoot me an email directly.

  10. To serve a statement of claim can a process server gain access into a building by forging entry Fobs or disengagingl/manipulating through electronic means the entry doors to be able to make it up to the suite without having to contact the person from below.

    If no, would this be a crime?

    1. Legaly… probably not. What makes you think that the server did that? Usually we would follow someone in to a secured building or someone would let us in. If it was an eviction, the landlord would likely provide us access or give us a key to get into the building. There are a million other ways for a server to gain access to a secured building that are less problematic.

  11. My landlord had a process server who is our neighbor serve me papers but she came to the door asked to come in I asked three times what she was there for and she said see how I was doing after the 4 the time she said she had a paper for me she’s friend with my landlord and I have sexual assault case against my landlord,she entered under false pretenses what can I do to file a compliment against her

  12. Can a process server in California ask you questions about the case to work for the other party as a witness to use the information against you.

    1. Depends on the questions and if it was part of serving the documents or other documents that they had for someone else that you might know. Now it would be 100% no problem that if the “Process Server” was also a Licensed Private Investigator or only a PI. They do serve papers too.

      1. What happens when the name on the service document is not the name of the person being served? Are we required to show ID to a server. Can we simply not accept documents if it’s not our name and don’t know anyone of that name their trying to serve? This is for a service for paternity and child support. This is in CA btw.

        1. You should answer the servers questions if you don’t know who this person is. Generally I ask how long ago they moved out or when you moved in? If you still see mail for this person’s name. If I can get a name, that helps us convince our client that the address is no longer valid and this person has been gone for however long. You want to come off to the server honest and helpfull. They still may leave the documents because the post office may have confirmed the defendants mail is still delivered to this address. Many Documents can be Sub-Served, (Give them to Someone Other Than The Named Defendant) but that usually needs to be an address that the subject works at, lives at or Recieves Their Mail at.

          Also… People Do Lie to Us!
          I have served documents on someone because they seemed to be lying to me, evasive or just plain an asshole to me and then ended up Bad Addressing the assignment back to my client. But if the client is able to provide me evidence that the address was good or got a Postal Check back confirming Usual Place of Mailing then I could Provide a Proof of Service to the court.

  13. Can a process server bang on your door and yell out loudly your name and they are serving you legal papers or can they just I have a “delivery” loudly

    1. It depends… I will normaly ring the doorbell… wait, then knock on the door… wait, and then knock on the door again and call out “delivery” because I am actually making a delivery. I do my best to not pound on the door or security screen but people will claim that I was when I clearly was not. I think because people don’t knock on doors as much as they did when I started this job people are surprised what it actually sounds like to get a knock on the door anymore. Also, doors are made differently now and metal security screens can sound louder than we intend when we are knocking on them. BUT if I see you inside or know for certin that you are there, but won’t come to the door, I would announce service clearly and tell you that I had legal papers for you and they are on the porch waiting for you.

  14. In California, can an attorney serve papers in a large package box filled with Styrofoam peanuts? Also can they shove open the front door to your house to put the box inside (after you have acknowledged you are who they are looking for and they do not say who they are or why they are trying to force a box into your home)?

    1. Why do you think this person was an Attorney or a Process Server? This sounds like someone who doesnt know what they are doing. I would never put the documents inside a box, for the same reason we don’t serve legal papers in envelopes. People will claim, “I didn’t know what was in the envelope/box.” My dad used to carry a small box to get people to answer the door but once they identified themselves, he would serve them the documents and leave with his box. Some people would still want the box and he would have to tell them it was an empty box. There is no need to open the door or the screen door, they should have just told you what the documents were and left them on the porch or in the security screen if you didn’t want to open the door.

      1. Thank you. After the man forced the box into my house he started saying “You’ve been served lady!” Then when I let him know I would be contacting law enforcement he told me to go ahead because he was the attorney and an officer of the court. He did not open the door. I cracked the door open to see who was at my door, but it was late and my dogs were present so I only opened it enough to see who was there. Once I acknowledged I was who he was looking for he began shoving the package into my door to get it into my house. I had to contact the sheriff because I was to afraid to open the box with current RO in place.

        1. This person is lucky that they did not get shot. That is NOT how things are done. What did the shreriff’s department tell you when they came out? I would think that could be considered breaking and entering, if not assault and battery when they forced the door open into you.

          If they are in fact an attorney, you might be able to make a complaint with the State Bar of California. If you were served with legal documents there will eventually be a proof of serivce filed with the court, detailing their name and contact information. I would be curious to see that proof of serivce.

  15. Can a process server ask personal questions such as age, marital status, height to a secretary receiving a document on behalf of a company? When asked why, the server said it was standard and she was within legal rights. This occurred in Florida.

    1. I believe this is required by Florida. BUT there is no requirement that you answer their questions if you don’t want to. They will just put “Refused” on the proof of service and guess on the height and weight.

  16. Is it still legal for a process server to still come to my house to serve me papers even if my case has been closed?

  17. Dose a person serving family court papers do they have to give you their name. And who they are. And what they are doing if you ask them..?? If they are on private property in South Carolina

    1. And the papers where no for me but they where on my property.. and would not tell me who they where..

      1. And he told me he was a detective while he was filming and never told me who he was until I told him it was my right to know while he was on private property he told me he was detective when I asked him for his badge number he wouldn’t give it to me and he was filming me the whole time and didn’t tell me that he was filming

  18. Hello,
    I would like to file a civil case against someone. I know their P.O. Box mailing address. I know what neighborhood they are renting a house in, but I dont know the actual physical address of the house. Do process servers have any way of finding out the actual physical address so the person can be served? I have gotten nowhere every attempt to find out the physical address. Silly question, I know! thank you for your time in advance.

    1. A Postal Check can be completed to see what address they opened the box up with. This is normaly completed by a process server but the post office may let you do it after filling out the proper form. A Private Investigator May be able to locate the correct address through database searches. You can provide the neighbors address so the server can locate the property and then get the numbers off the curb or home.

  19. I’m wondering if a process server would even know WHY the person is being served? I’ve lived in quiet comfort on a desolate farm for more than 3 years now; have no debt, no enemies, no real estate problems. I’m a senior citizen with a terminal illness. Life is good such as it is. Why would a process server be looking for me? No, I don’t even know anyone nefarious – and oddly, the server went to an address I left more than 3 years ago. That resident told them, honestly, they had no idea of my current address.
    I just want an idea of why?

    1. The Process Server would have the documents and could give you an idea what they were about if you were willing to set an appointment to recieve them. Some times you are just being given notice that a sale of a property for taxes is taking place of a relatives property, that you could have an interest in or a conservatorship or addoption of a relative is going on and they have to give everyone notice so you could object if you needed to.

  20. Can a process server (in Georgia) block you in, while in your car, in a parking lot so as to hand you documents thru the car window? And documents I might add that have already been served by the local sheriff’s department one week ago.

    1. Probably but you would want to check with a Georgia Process Server / Law Enforcement in Georgia. Check those documents carefully and make sure they are exactly the same and that changes have not been made to the new documents. They could be Amended, but likely the client did not cancel the service with the Process Server.

    1. Generally we try to get it under the winshield wiper but if we can only get it to the winshield because you are trying to run us over that would likely be considered good service. Even if you flip the documents off the car or they fall off driving away or turning. Aslong as they leave the documents there in the middle of the road that would be considered service. They are your documents after you have been served with them, you can do whatever you want with your papers. Tear them up, leave them in the middle of the street or parking lot. You Own Them!

      DON’T AVOID SERVICE!

  21. What if the summons was left with an incompetent person and I never received the documents because I was never notified by the person who excepted the papers .

    1. Depends on the documents and the state the documents are filed out of. Also may depend on the severity of the mental disability. In most cases when the documents are Sub-Served they are followed up by mailing a copy to the named defendant. If the person who the documents were left with doesn’t give you the dox, then you would get a copy in the mail as well. You could probably challange the service but it would be up to the judge and wheter you could prove it was invalid.

  22. And the summons says they left the papers with a competent person . But I can prove the person is incompetent through mental health and disabilities

  23. Can I server leave paperwork with ur neighbor if u are not home? Askong that they give them to there neighbor when they get home.

    1. Would depend on the court your documents are filed out of and what you mean by neighbor. If it is a roommate or both units have the same address, you rent the bottom level and the “Neighbor” rents the top level but each unit is not seperated by unit numbers or street address’s then probably could sub-serve the documents to that person. If it is clearly a different address, different families then probably not. You would need to check with a local process server or attorney.

      We would see this more with business’s where one company sub-leases out space to another company, they have the same address but 2 different companies in the same space. In California we could sub-serve the documents to the “Person Apparently in Charge” for the business that is always there but the people from the other company is never there.

  24. In, Ca. Server put the loose paperwork on my husbands windshield as he was leaving for work. The paperwork blew off the car all over the street. I can’t imagine this was the right way to go about this. There’s pages missing, I can’t make heads or tails of it.

    1. Normally documents are stapled together, but the service is 100% valid. I would recommend the next time your husband gets served that he take the documents from the server and not try to avoid service. You can get a copy of the file from the court, maybe even from the courts website if they are imaged and available there.

  25. If I was serving divorce paperwork (financial forms), am I allowed to serve the forms/attachments as digital files on a thumb drive, or do I need to print/serve hard copies of every form and attachment?

    1. Depends on the court. I know some courts allowing eService, generally email. But if the other party has agread to receive them on a Thumb Drive then you are Probably OK. If they are not agreeing then I would serve physical copies of the documents.

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