When a party wishes to file a claim in a U.S. District Court, such as in a personal injury or wrongful death action, the process is initiated by filing a complaint. The method used to formally deliver documents to parties and the court is known as service of process. A summons is a written document that notifies the defendant(s) of the nature of the complaint and specifies the initial details of a court appearance. The basic elements that may be found in a summons include:
- The name of the court and all parties
- The name and address of the plaintiff's attorney
- A time and date for an initial court appearance
- An explanation that a failure to appear could lead to a default judgment against the defendant
- The seal of the court and clerk's office signature
When there are multiple defendants, each must be served a summons with a copy of the complaint. Any person 18 years of age or older may serve the defendant as long as they are not a party in the matter. In some situations, the court may have service conducted by a U.S. marshal or deputy. For business entities, personal service may be completed by delivering the documents to an agent of the entity.
Service is generally done in person; however, courts may allow for a waiver of service, or essentially a voluntary acceptance, to avoid expenses related to personal service. This process requires that the defendant return the waiver in a reasonable period of 30 days, or a period of 60 days when the defendant is outside of the U.S. This process is to notify the defendant of the court action underway and include a copy of the complaint. This may be done via first–class mail or other basic delivery method. A failure by a defendant to respond may make them responsible for the expenses incurred in completing service.
The defendant has the opportunity to respond to the complaint and state any defenses to it, which is known as an answer. If a defendant returns a waiver of service within the proper time frame, they are afforded a 60-day period to answer a complaint. Personal service to an individual may be completed through personal delivery to the party, or by delivering it to the home of the individual and giving it to a party of suitable age.
Serving those outside the U.S. may be subject to international terms agreed upon by the Hague Convention; however, the rules may vary based on location and your attorney should be consulted. It is important to note that federal court districts may have local rules in place that vary from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.