How to serve papers to someone you can’t find

Plaintiffs are more often in this situation and wonder how to serve papers to someone you can’t find? Your court papers need to be served to defendant when a civil case is filed in court. These include a copy of the complaint and a subpoena at a specified date and time to appear in court. Legal documents are served by Process Server, and may be the sheriff or adult who has no personal stake in the case. Your case can’t move forward if documents are not delivered.

The other parties listed in the agreement must be provided with court papers when someone makes a complaint or a petition with the court, such as a case for damages for personal property or requesting a divorce. It ensures that documents relating to the case, such as a copy of the complaint and a subpoena to appear in court, must be sent to each individual named in order to ensure that he recognizes the case brought against him and has time to respond adequately and obtain legal advice.

One of the most frequently asked questions in this field is:

How to serve papers to someone you can’t find?

How to serve papers to someone you can't find

The complainant or the court must first know the whereabouts of that person in order to provide someone with court papers.

When to serve court papers?

You will be required to use service of process in two stages of your civil litigation:

first is when starting a new case and second throughout your case

11 ways how to serve papers to someone you can’t find

This is general information how court papers can be served. Your litigation and nature of your case will allow only some of these types of services. Not all of them are allowed, you might be able to use different types when starting your case and throughout your case.

Personal Service

Most trusted kind of service as the court is sure that the person who is served court papers will provide “proof of service” and may, if appropriate, challenge the Process server on the service. Often, because it is so reliable it is generally required when starting the case (original summons/complaint).

Common documents requiring Personal Service



Ex Parte notice of motion

Temporary Restraining Order (TRO)

Order Of Examination

Order for Appearance of Judgment Debtor


Substituted Service

Used after several attempts to personally serve the papers have failed. Substituted service is complete10 days after the day the papers are mailed.

Service by certified first class or overnight mail

This type of service is easy, often not trusted to serve papers because the court cannot know for sure that someone received court papers.

Electronic service

This type of service is covered by State Rules of Court often required by local rule or court order

Service by Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt

Normally, when the other party wants to be served by mail and is willing to sign a court document indicating that they have obtained the documents, this form can be used. It is normally used for summons or complaint / petition (in criminal and family law cases).

Service by posting on the premises and mailing (for eviction cases only)

Only in eviction cases (unlawful detainer), a summons/complaint can be served by posting on the premises at issue in the eviction and also mailing. Service by posting and mailing is used after several attempts to personally serve the papers have failed. Court permission is required in this case for landlords to serve tenants by posting and mailing

Service by publication

You are allowed to publish the summons/complaint in a local newspaper. It is usually used when you do not know how to find the other side and do not have a current address from home or work.

You will have to prove to the court that you have tried as hard as possible to find and serve the other side before the court can give you permission to serve by publication every court is slightly different in what they require, but most require, at least, that you try to find the other side at his or her last known address or work, send letters to the last known address with the forwarding address requested, call the other side’s friends and family or ex-coworkers to ask about his or her whereabouts, look for the other side of the phone book for any city.

Service by posting (at the courthouse)

Clerk posts the summons/complaint in a visible place designated for court notices at the courthouse. The procedure is pretty much same as for Service by publication will need court permission

Service by certified mail (small claims only)

The court clerk will ask you if you like to serve your small claims this way after you file it. Get status of your service before the hearing to see if the receipt for certified mail was returned to the court. Service by certified mail is complete on the day the certified mail receipt is signed. There is fee that court clerk will ask you to pay.

Service by certified mail (for a party who is out of state)

This may vary from state to state. Before you decide for this type of service check rules in state you think the other party may reside. Court papers can be served by sending a copy of the paperwork to be served to that party by first-class mail, and return receipt requested.

Service on someone who lives out of the country

If you have a need to serve court papers outside the United States you will need to check the rules and specific process under the Hague Convention


How To Serve Papers To Someone You Can’t Find

Once you know in what type of litigation you are involved and what types of services you can use to serve your court papers is time to collect as much information about other party you can.

Get Basic Information

Start by gathering all the details about this person you know. Here’s the list for you to start:

First name, middle name, last name?



Weight, height, eyes color, hair color, eye glasses?

Last known address, last known city, last known county?

Current or previous place of work?

Favorite hangout place?

How many and what kind of  vehicles?

Last known vehicle insurance?

Photos of old documents, their photos?

Family members?

Last known phone numbers?

Last known bank?

Preform Search

1. Send a USPS mail to the person’s last address.

Write “Return Service Required” under your return address. Do not forward. “If the person submitted a change of address to the post office, the letter will be returned with a new address.

2. Search social media (networking) sites.

Most of the time if you search social media with their full name and location, you might get multiple results and try to narrow down by looking into their social media accounts. Sometimes a search is broad, look at their interests and hobbies or groups they joined.

3. Use online service that search for people.

To get the address or phone number of the person you are looking for, sometimes you’ll be able to pay for online services. Use all details you have about the person you’re looking for, to get better results.

4. Contact the relatives or friends.

Friends and relatives of the person you are looking for most of the time will be on their side and will not release any information, in some cases, if you tell them what is going on and explain the situation they might understand and give you some information’s you need to complete your search. You’ll be surprised how many times “so called” friends or ex friends have more information’s thank you though. It’s worth it, just contact them

5. Contact previous work place. More people, it’s better.

The last known work place is a very good place to look for more information’s because you can always talk to coworkers. We all spend a big part of the day at work, coworkers will be happy to give you more information’s if you ask nicely.

6. Call”411″ ask for city where you think the person may live.

You may be able to get their address if the person is listed. Or you can only get the phone, and you can use the phone to get the address with other directories.

7. Go to tax assessor’s office or recorder’s office and search property records.

  • This might sound as good idea, in reality, is not that easy. The way all information’s are stored you will need verified information’s about the person you are looking for, otherwise you will spend lots of time without real results. Every County and tax assessor’s office are little different in how they go about it. Once you preform search you will get multiple results and only way to make sure you are on the right track is to read and check the individual search result.
  • There is another place you might be able to get more information and its county recorder’s office. The property owners are listed by name, and each listing includes the location of the property owned. The address and phone number of your county recorder’s office is also listed in the government pages of your phone book. It is usually in the county section under RECORDER.

8. Hire a process server, they know how to serve papers to someone you can’t find.

The steps mentioned above will give you a good idea where to find the person you need to serve papers, if you followed these steps good chance you end up with a few places where a person could be. Once you have addressed and places its time to narrow down and verify it. The best way to verify is to visit these addresses and places and make sure the person is there. If you feel you might need help or to speed things up, you can always look for local process servers in your area. Process Servers will need all information’s you have and you’ve collected about the person you need to serve.

There is always a way!

To serve papers to someone you can’t find, you don’t need to know where a person lives or works. You just need to find the process server to serve your legal papers. The more you learn about someone, interests, habits, or the places where person spend time, will be faster and easier to serve legal papers. If you know the person’s habits and you know without a doubt when individual will be at the coffee shop, gym, store, restaurant or post office, you give that information to your process server and you can call it done. Even if you able to meet with a person, your process server can be there to serve legal papers.