Being Served Legal Papers Can be Traumatic
If you are fortunate enough to make it through life without ever being served legal papers, you are doing something right! There was a bumper sticker craze years ago – the stickers read: “S__t Happens.” Well, from a Lawyer’s vantage point: ”Life Happens!”
People are served papers every day for unpaid debts, dog bites, minor car accidents, failure to pay rent, divorce, the list is l-o-n-g…, if not endless.
The legal act of delivering a court filing to a person is called “personal service.” You might have heard someone say they have been “served with papers” – it is the exact same thing. Frankly, it can often be be embarrassing and traumatic depending on where and when the Sheriff’s Deputy or private process server found you and served with some kind of court filing. Chances are you will have some sleepless nights where your mind wrestles with the service and your anger at the formality of pulling you into a public legal battle where others – strangers for the most part – are butting into your private life and threatening you, possibly your freedom, certainly your finances and your sense of personal security and well-being.
The Legal Papers you Were Served With will Have the Following:
The papers will:
- Name of the court where the case is pending
- The type: Summons, Complaint, Subpoena, and Discovery Request
- The names of the parties, (e.g., John Doe vs. Jane Doe)
- The case number
- Some kind of certification that you were served (e.g., in person, by mail, etc.)
- Instructions for answering the complaint or a form to fill out.
- Tell you when the court date is or date requiring an “answer”
- A list of allegations, which constitutes the complaint. The paper may or may not be titled “Complaint”
Moreover, oftentimes there is some kind of correspondence, either from an attorney to the court clerk or to the other party. If you have been served personally, the letter might be addressed to you personally.
What You Should Do If Served Legal Papers
Because virtually ALL legal papers that are served contain a deadline, you should take immediate action. More specifically, you should contact an attorney. Most attorneys, including our office, offer a no-cost consultation about virtually any legal matter that you might be facing. Doesn’t it make good sense to find out all there is to know about your options?
If the filing directs you to be somewhere or do something, you must do so, and to procrastinate or ignore the situation is asking for big trouble. It is just not worth it! If you fail to act, to answer the complaint, or to appear as directed, you could be found in contempt of court and a bench warrant issued for your arrest. Moreover, what might be a simple matter of answering and having the situation “go away” might —if you do NOTHING— cause you to sacrifice any defense you might have had and an unfair or unjust legal judgment could be entered against you. Please don’t put your head in the sand. Take immediate steps to protect yourself. We have had clients come to see us for a free consultation, who entered our offices on the verge of a panic attack — totally stressed out, and left completely calm and relieved as we have agreed to answer the complaint and handle the ENTIRE problem on their behalf. They likely went home and had their first restful night’s sleep since the papers were served.
Upshot? – Don’t freak out. Personal service is a very important process that does have legal significance, but it won’t affect your ability to live your life, for the most part. Being served with a Complaint doesn’t mean the whole world will be caving in on you; doesn’t mean you’re guilty of anything, necessarily. Being served is just the formal way that our society and legal system functions as you are notified that a lawsuit has been filed against you. Again, receiving a Subpoena, alone, doesn’t mean you have necessarily done anything wrong. All it means is you’ve been ordered to show up at a court-related proceeding, perhaps provide some documents, or something that someone’s legal case requires to move forward – with little or no potential harm to you.