Service of a Lawsuit

In North Carolina Family Law cases, “service” refers to the process by which a legal document is delivered. The party instituting legal action is required to serve the other party with their lawsuit in order to initiate the case. Without timely service, a case cannot proceed. For example, if a parent files a lawsuit for Child Custody and Child Support in North Carolina, the Court (except in emergency situations) cannot proceed on deciding custody or child support until the other party is served.

Under North Carolina law, the initiating party must serve their lawsuit on the opposing party within 60 days of the issuance of a Civil Summons. A Civil Summons is a document traditionally issued along with the filing of a lawsuit, which once served on the defendant alerts that party to the action pending against them, as well as their rights and duty to respond to that lawsuit. If the plaintiff fails to serve the defendant within 60 days, they may seek an extension of time to serve their lawsuit via issuance of an Alias and Pluries Summons, which is essentially an extended or renewed Civil Summons. There are other means to extend the time for service, but this is by far the most common method.

Plaintiffs initiating a lawsuit must also effectuate service in a manner approved by the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. The two most common service methods are via certified mail, with signature receipt by the recipient or via personal delivery by a sheriff in the county in which the defendant resides. For the former, once a defendant signs the USPS certified mailing, service is properly effectuated. The plaintiff should requested “return receipt” from the USPS so that they receive the signature card signed by the recipient. The USPS website provides updated delivery information which is helpful to track and confirm service. With service via sheriff, the plaintiff pays a fee, in Mecklenburg County it is $30.00, and provides instruction on where and sometimes when a defendant will be present for personal delivery. The sheriff’s department can also contact the defendant by phone to schedule delivery. Once a sheriff’s deputy personally delivers the Civil Summons and Complaint, service is effectuated.

You may have seen legal documents delivered in a movie or television show by someone in disguise or by throwing papers in a barely opened door or window. Those persons are called “private process servers” and North Carolina law allows for service by those so duly appointed. To utilize a process service, the plaintiff must first attempt service via sheriff and the sheriff must be unable to deliver the Civil Summons and Complaint to the defendant. For example, if a sheriff cannot locate the defendant at his/her home, work, and they refuse the sheriff’s calls to schedule delivery, the sheriff can report the package as a failed delivery. Once the sheriff does so, the plaintiff may hire a private process server to attempt service. The private process server typically engages in more detailed efforts to effectuate service, including sitting outside someone’s home or work or appearing at a location where the defendant is expected, like at a child’s soccer practice. The fees for private process servers vary and can range from $75.00 to several hundreds of dollars, depending on how difficult the service becomes.

Since service of a North Carolina family law case can sometimes prove harder than expected and can delay the process, it is best to know the available avenues for service and requirements for same ahead of time. To speak with someone today about your North Carolina Family Law case, please call us at (704) 810-1400 to schedule a confidential consultation.

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