When a lawsuit, like a divorce, is filed, someone must physically deliver a copy of it to any party being sued. A process server is a person whose job it is to deliver court paperwork, or “serve papers.” But what exactly can a process server legally do to serve papers? 

Dodging Service Won’t Work

Many people, perhaps because of television and movies, think that avoiding the process server or refusing to physically accept the paperwork will prevent proper service. Without proper service, the thinking goes, the court cannot go forward with the case. This is untrue. 

Attorneys use alternative methods, condoned by courts, when a party dodges service. Depending on the jurisdiction and type of case, these methods include having the court appoint an attorney on the party’s behalf, substituted service, and service by publication.

But most often, a process server is able to complete service. This is because they are very good at what they do. Let’s take a look at what process servers can do. 

What Can Process Servers Do?

Each state’s laws outline what a process server working in that state can do to accomplish service. Process servers work within the law to get their job done. 

Take a Window When a Door is Closed

No, a process server will not try to come into your home through a window. But they will do their best to serve a person wherever they can find them if that person refuses to answer the door. Process servers may choose to:

  • Wait in a public place nearby the home
  • Attempt service at a workplace or wait in a public place nearby a workplace
  • Knock on the door at homes where you might be present (friends or family members)

These alternatives might be embarrassing, but in most cases they are lawful. Under U.S. law, the front door to a home is generally approachable by the public. 

A process server can approach a person in a public place, like a sidewalk or parking lot. It does no good to run, hide, or attempt to avoid a process server to delay legal proceedings, like child custody matters.  

Mail to the Last Known Residential Address

Most states have a series of preferred methods of service. One method available in most states is service by mail. Notice by mail to the last known residential address is sometimes required or allowed when a parent wishes to relocate with a child.

Some states require service by U.S. mail, registered or certified, and other states allow commercial couriers (UPS, FedEx) to make delivery of court paperwork. Usually, there is a requirement to show delivery. This can be accomplished with an affidavit of the party who sent the paperwork and a signed receipt of delivery. 

Service at Your Home on a Person of Suitable Age

Many states permit service at the home of the person who is being sued. In some cases, like those involving property, the service can be posted or tacked to the door of the home. In other cases, it is acceptable to physically hand the paperwork to an adult in the home of the person being sued. 

In theory, an adult present in the home understands the importance of legal paperwork. Understanding that, they can ensure that the person being sued becomes aware of the papers left for them, by leaving a note, making a call, or sending a text. This kind of service can be legally valid even if the adult fails to take any action. 

What Can’t a Process Server Do?

Process servers cannot break any laws in their attempt to complete service of process. However, some process servers may be tempted to bend a few. Here’s what process servers cannot do to accomplish service. 

Tamper with the Mail 

Obviously, no one should tamper with the mail. U.S. mail is protected by federal law and mail tampering is a federal crime

Why would a process server be accused of it? Some process servers may open mailboxes and check the names on envelopes. By doing this, they seek to learn whether the person they are trying to serve is receiving mail at the address. Receiving mail at an address is a classic legal indicator of residence. 

A process server who knows that the address is indeed the person’s residence won’t be fooled if it looks like a house is empty. No one can stay away from their home forever. 

Acts of Impersonation

A process server cannot engage in acts of deception to gain access to you for service. While uncommon, anecdotal support exists that process servers sometimes attempt disguises. 

Process servers under no circumstances can impersonate a law enforcement officer. Since sheriff’s deputies also serve papers, this is probably not a clever strategy, in any event. A person dodging service is not likely to open the door for a sheriff’s deputy, either. 

More unusual disguises, like a pizza delivery person or a door-to-door salesperson, would require significant effort. One can see a certain sitcom-like scene where the papers are hidden in a pizza box. This kind of stuff makes for cheesy tv and sharp practice, too.