Depending on where you live, your lawsuit may not officially begin until you can show proof of service. And as your case proceeds, you'll likely need to show proof of service for other legal documents as well.
Now you may not be quite sure exactly what proof of service entails. But one thing is certain: messing up a proof of service will prevent you from proceeding with your lawsuit in a timely fashion; it may even come back to haunt you later.
Let's try to keep things simple with this general overview of how to show proof of service:
- Serve your complaint (or other legal documents). In most states, your lawsuit commences when the defendant is served with the complaint. Generally, personal service should be done by someone who is over 18 and not a party to the lawsuit (i.e., not you). In some cases and for some types of documents, service by mail or publication may be allowed.
- Fill out a "Proof of Service" form. After legal documents are served, the server should fill out a proof of service form. The easiest way to do this is to use a form provided by your jurisdiction for your particular type of case, such as this one (used in California domestic violence cases). You can also draft your own proof of service form; make sure it mirrors the language found on the court-provided forms and includes details such as: the name of the case and the case number; a description of the documents served; the server's name, contact info, and signature; the person served; the time, date, and location of service; and a statement that the server is over 18 and not a party to the case.
- Double check your info. Make sure that you have completely filled out all portions of the proof of service form that pertain to your mode of service (e.g., personal, mail, publication). If you have drafted your own form, make sure you have included everything you need to include according to the laws of the state in which you are filing your lawsuit. Any errors on a proof of service can be challenged by the opposing party.
- Provide copies to everyone who needs one. Generally, the proof of service must be filed with the court. But you will also want to keep a "file-stamped" copy for yourself, and may also need to provide copies to other parties in the case as well.
Need More Help?
If there are problems with your proof of service, you may have to petition the court to correct your mistake. Depending on the circumstances, courts will generally allow you to amend your proof of service to fix clerical or other errors.
Messing up a proof of service can hobble your lawsuit before it even begins. If you need assistance with service, proof of service, or any other aspect of your lawsuit, an experienced litigation attorney can help ensure that you're doing things the correct way.
- Lawsuits: A Practical Guide (FindLaw)
- Proof of Service Can Often Prove Tricky (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Don't Bother Avoiding Process Servers (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Your Defendant's Mother Probably Isn't an Agent for Service (FindLaw's California Case Law Blog)