What Is A Summons?

The Summons is an order from the court in which the lawsuit is to be litigated. It notifies you that you have been sued, refers to the Complaint or Petition, and tells you how long you have to file an answer or seek to have the case dismissed. It will also tell you the consequences of failing to respond in a timely manner: the case may be decided without you and you may be bound by the result even if you didn't participate. Failing to respond on time will cause you to be in default.

The Summons is usually a form document. It will have a preprinted caption that sets forth the name of the court, the names of the parties and a docket number (that's the court identification number). The body of the document will tell you that you have been sued. This language is called the Notice. The Summons will be served on you along with the Complaint, either when somebody actually confirms you are who you are and gives you the documents or places them on or near your person, or when they are mailed to you. The legal term for this is service of process. The Summons, properly served, gives the court jurisdiction over your case and over you. That means the court has the power to make decisions about the controversy set forth in the Complaint and the power to make decisions affecting you with respect to the controversy.

When you are personally served, somebody personally places the Summons and Complaint in your hands, or some reasonably similar act. You also may be properly served if the person gives the papers to a responsible person residing in your home and asks that person to give them to you. A child or teenager may, depending on the circumstances, be deemed a responsible person. If you are served by mail, the rules anticipate that you will return a card or form to the plaintiff's lawyer acknowledging that you have received the court papers. Other kinds of service of process are also permissible, and special rules apply to certain situations.

When you consult your lawyer, be sure to tell him or her how you were served, where you were served, at what time you were served, and any odd circumstances. This information may provide the basis for a motion to dismiss for insufficient service of process. Note that in some states a lawsuit may proceed without the Complaint actually being filed. It is vital that you act promptly.

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