Serve A Complaint At The Individual’s Dwelling House Or Usual Place Of Abode With A Resident Of Suitable Age And Discretion

No Escape From The Muddy Goo: Almost Any Adult Can Be Served At The Defendant’s Home

On TV, process servers appear as clowns, ice cream vendors or construction workers and after engaging the hero in offhand chatter force papers into his hand announcing “You’ve been served!” The hero looks down with an expression as if his fingers have been forced into a muddy goo and we cut to a commercial.

In real life, clients need never pay for these extravagant masquerades because service is actually fairly easy. Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia all authorize service upon almost anyone of adult age at the defendant’s usual address.

In Maryland:

Service of process may be made within this State … if the person to be served is an individual, by leaving a copy of the summons, complaint, and all other papers filed with it at the individual’s dwelling house or usual place of abode with a resident of suitable age and discretion.

In Pennsylvania:

Original process may be served upon a defendant who is an adult by handing a copy to the defendant; or by handing a copy at the residence of the defendant to an adult member of the family with whom the defendant resides; but if no adult member of the family is found, then to an adult person in charge of such residence.

In Virginia:

In any action at law or in equity or any other civil proceeding in any court, process, for which no particular mode of service is prescribed, may be served upon natural persons as follows:

By delivering a copy thereof in writing to the party in person; or if the party to be served is not found at his usual place of abode, by delivering a copy of such process and giving information of its purport to any person found there, who is a member of his family, other than a temporary sojourner or guest, and who is of the age of sixteen years or older.

In Delaware:

Upon an individual other than an infant or an incompetent person by delivering a copy of the summons, complaint and affidavit, if any, to that individual personally or by leaving copies thereof at that individual’s dwelling house or usual place of abode with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing therein.

These rules seem fair to the courts and the attorneys who draft the rules because they believe that service of legal papers shouldn’t be a game to see if a plaintiff can successfully force the complaint directly into the hands of the defendant.  Instead, the focus is on whether the service is reasonably likely to alert the defendant that there’s been an action or a proceeding filed against them. If so, the defendant knows that they need to take some steps to protect their legal rights.

Service issues can become difficult when people attempt to evade.  They may see the sheriff coming and refuse to answer the door.  In that event, the plaintiff’s attorney will file an affidavit from the process server that the person seems to be evading service and ask the court to enter an order saying all the plaintiff has to do is certify a mailing to the defendant and post the papers at the defendant’s last known address.  If the court grants that request the defendant will be determined to be served even if they never have the papers placed directly into their hands.

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