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When is Service of Process not Service?

One of the challenges faced when trying to serve a defendant with a summons and complaint is obtaining service out-of-state.  As the title of this article indicates, states do not always handle that process the same.  Just this week, we have encountered one state in which it is acceptable for the Sheriff to knock on the door and if no one answers, then leave the documents at the door, mail a set first class to that address and call it a day.  The deputy completes an affidavit of service setting out the steps he took and service is complete.  That is fine in Indiana, but not under North Carolina law.  Oops.

In another instance, local law enforcement does not handle service.  Much as you see on television, the first option in some states are private process servers – those folks who may walk up to you on the street, hand you papers and announce “you’ve been served.”

Since generally lawyers are the ones handling service, how that is accomplished probably is not a major concern for most people.  However, if you are in the position of plaintiff in a lawsuit, it helps to understand the process.  And, if you are ever a defendant, then it is important to know whether service made upon you is proper.  In general, if the document ends up in your hands as a defendant, then you have in fact been served.  If the document ends up in the hands of “suitable age” (old enough to understand the import of being served) at a place where you live, then you have been served.  Otherwise, you may have been served, but there also may be questions for a lawyer to explore, so seek counsel.  Conversely, if you are the plaintiff, just because you receive something that says service has been accomplished, make certain how that service was accomplished and that it complies with the laws of the state where the action is pending or you may receive a nasty surprise later in the case.


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