Lawrence Ryan Investigations

Lawrence Ryan Investigations Chicago Illinois
How to Serve Papers To Someone You Can´r Find

How to Serve Papers to Someone You Can’t Find

When a plaintiff files legal action against a defendant, they must serve them a copy of the claim to notify them of the legal proceedings. This formal notice 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.

Learn How to Serve Papers to Someone You Can’t Find

Usually, legal 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 documents 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 procedure, you can always ask your small claims court clerk for more details and find out how the process of serving legal documents 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?

Serving papers options

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, and 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 email address, phone number, and physical 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 correct address.

If nothing works, you can always try your luck with social media and see if the individual has listed their current 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 a current home address, especially if you know the individual you want to serve as a property in a certain jurisdiction.

Serve the papers by mail

Small claims cases allow for the service of process to be done via regular mail or certified mail. Once you know the defendant’s actual address, you can deliver the summons and a copy of the complaint by mail. Service by mail is the cheapest and easiest way you can serve someone.

Make sure you request a return receipt – “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 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 mail receipt too.

[cp_popup display=”inline” style_id=”25360″ step_id = “1”][/cp_popup]

Serve the papers by a process server

Most plaintiffs 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 the process. Once you have the mailing 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 professional process 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 as 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 so they can deliver the papers in person. 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 the 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

Valid service of the 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 who 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.


Lawrence Ryan Investigations has been helping law firms and individuals to serve individuals throughout Chicago. No matter if the individual is in Oak Lawn, Lake Forest, Elgin, or Wilmette, our investigation team is available to serve individuals on your behalf. Call us today to receive more information.

Post Update: The article was updated on November 15th, 2022, originally published on April 25th, 2019. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Need an Investigator to Deliver You Trusted Results?

Our licensed investigators can help you find the information you seek.
Provide your details and receive a Free consultation with a licensed investigator. Check your email inbox with next steps.
Full Name(Required)