How to Serve Papers to Someone You Can’t Find
Learn How to Serve Papers to Someone You Can’t Find
When a plaintiff files legal action against a defendant, he or she must serve them a copy of the claim to notify them of the legal proceedings. This action is called service of process. Through the service of process, the plaintiff lets the defendant know what they’ve told the court and what they expect from the court. They also inform the defendant about the day, time, and place where they have to show up to defend themselves against the claim.
Usually, papers are served in the state where the plaintiff files the lawsuit. If the defendant lives or does business in the state where the plaintiff filed the lawsuit, the papers can be served in any place in that state. However, the plaintiff can’t sue someone in a state and serve them the papers in another state, except if the lawsuit is related to motor vehicle accidents or out-of-state owners of real estate situated in the state where the lawsuit will take place. If you have questions about this action, you can always ask your small claims court clerk for more details and find out how the process of serving papers is handled in your state.
For the lawsuit to make sense, the plaintiff needs to know where the defendant lives or works, so they can serve them the papers. Moreover, if the lawsuit has more defendants, each one needs to be served individually, even if the defendants live together, are married or are doing business together. Not knowing where to find the defendant can put not only the lawsuit on hold but also the plaintiff’s entire life, especially if the lawsuit is related to a divorce or child support payments. So how to serve papers to someone you can’t find?
Gather basic information
First, you need to do your research and gather as much information as you can about the party you want to sue. Find all you can about their identity: first name, last name, middle name, nickname, age, date of birth, place of birth, the last city they lived in. It would also be helpful if you knew any relatives or friends of the defendant, their names and where they live. A basic Internet search might help you with the person’s phone number and address. Or you can do it the old fashion way: call information and ask for this data.
If you already know the defendant’s phone number, you can use a reverse telephone directory that might lead you to the person’s address. If nothing works, you can always try your luck with social media and see if the individual has listed their address, phone number or employer information, or hire a private investigator to skip trace them. If you know their employer’s address, you can always serve your papers there. Looking up property records might also help with an address, especially if you know the individual you want to serve has a property in a certain jurisdiction.
Serve the papers by certified mail
Small claims cases allow for the service of process to be done via certified mail. Once you know the defendant’s address, you can deliver the summons and a copy of the complaint by certified mail, which is the cheapest and easiest way you can serve someone. Make sure you request a return receipt though – “Return Service Requested. Do Not Forward.” that includes proof of delivery, the recipient’s signature, and the date and time of delivery. Restricted delivery assures you that only the person you address the summons to will sign for it. Keep the return receipt as proof that you served the defendant. Usually, the court clerk does the mailing for the plaintiff for a small fee and receives the receipt too.
Serve the papers by a process server
Most plaintiffs though prefer to use the service of a private process server to serve papers. This is the most elegant and effortless way to do the service of process. Once you have the address of the defendant, a process server can hand them the papers. When you decide to use personal service, you can opt for one of these personal servers:
- Sheriff, marshal or constable – either one of these law officers can serve the papers. The fee will be added to your judgment if you win. A sheriff of a county with a population of less than 2,000,000 may employ civilian personnel to serve process, while in counties with a population less than 2,000,000, the papers may be served, without a special appointment, by a private investigator. The sheriff can also hand the papers to someone who lives with the defendant and is at least 13 years old.
- Private process servers – since the sheriff needs to try and complete the service of process only once, there’s a big possibility they won’t be able to find the defendant at home. In this case, you can hire a private process server who will try to serve the summons as many times necessary. In this case, you need to ask the court for permission. Usually, private process servers are licensed private investigator companies that can also help with locating the defendant. Their fees depend on how long the service takes.
- Disinterested adult – the state of Illinois allows a person who is at least 18 years old and not a party to the action to serve papers; this category can include a relative or a friend, but only if the person has been approved by the court.
Regardless of the process server chosen, it’s very important for the papers to actually be handed to the defendant and not just left in their mailbox. If the process server locates the defendant and meets them but the person refuses to take the papers, is aggressive or simply runs away, the process server should just put the papers down and leave. In these circumstances, the service is considered valid, even if the defendant didn’t actually take the papers. A process server is not allowed to use force to get a person to accept the papers.
Get proof of service
A valid service of process ends with proof of service. If the court clerk served the papers by certified mail, you don’t need to do anything else. They’ll be the ones receiving the post office receipt and this finalizes the process.
However, if you have served your papers by a private process server, you’re required to notify the court by filing a form known as Proof of Service. The form can be found at the court clerk’s office and needs to be signed by the person that actually served the papers.
Since the beginning of 2018, the state of Illinois has introduced e-filling, a system that requires both attorneys and individuals who are representing themselves to file court papers online instead of in person with a clerk. The sheriff or local circuit court will help you understand the system and the steps you need to follow.