It Depends, But In General, Yes, We Can Leave Papers with a Relative or Spouse
Being part of a legal matter is rarely a pleasant experience. Many people go to great lengths to keep the proceedings a secret from friends and family, even though most lawsuits are a matter of public record. It may come as a surprise for these individuals that in many cases, a process server can leave papers with a family member. In the process serving world, this is called a “substitute service” or a “subserve” for short.
The exact rules vary by state, but in Wisconsin, many legal documents can be left with a family member under certain circumstances.
While this may be a shock, the reason for it is fairly obvious. If you knew you were being served, you could simply always have a family member answer the door to avoid being served personally. It also increases the likelihood that you will get the papers. Don’t forget, the process server is doing you a favor by notifying you of the case information. By having laws in place that allow the serve to give the papers to family members, the state is making it that much easier for you to find about about the lawsuit.
What Are the Rules for Serving Papers on Family Members?
First and foremost, the kind of paper being served must allow for substitute service. Like everything in process serving, the exact rules change depending on the state, but in Wisconsin and many other states, almost all civil actions can be served on a family member. This includes large and small claims papers, evictions, foreclosures and garnishments. Depending on the type, some subpoenas can also be served on family members. In general, family matters, like divorce and child support papers, can only be handed to you personally. After all, it would be rather strange if your soon-to-be-ex was served the divorce papers they filed.
Many states, like Wisconsin, require a process server to make a certain number of attempts to deliver the paper to you before they are given to a family member. This is commonly called “Due Diligence.”
If the server is unsuccessful in getting the papers served to you personally after multiple attempts, then they may leave the papers with a family member or co-resident of suitable age for substitute service.
Be aware that certain states actually allow substituted service on a family member on any attempt, even the first.
Wisconsin, however, does require servers to first try to get the papers to the named defendant before leaving them with a family member. This is why many times a process server will speak with a family member but not leave the papers with them. Out of respect for your privacy, the server will often not even tell the family member exactly why they need to speak with you. So if a family member tells you a stranger was trying to deliver something to you but wouldn’t say what, it very well could be a process server who hadn’t completed due diligence yet.
Wisconsin, like other states, does place certain restrictions on what family members can legally be served papers. It would be ludicrous to allow a server to drop a summons and complaint on a two year old, but the rules are a bit looser than you may think. A process server may leave legal documents with a competent family member who is of suitable age.
With certain restrictions, process servers can serve papers on a minor family member.
The service must take place at your usual place of abode. In Wisconsin, “usual place of abode” is by and large considered to be your home or where you normally live. Subservice is never allowed at a place of work or any other location that is not your home. Even this, however, is interpreted differently depending on the state. In certain jurisdictions, you only need to spend one night at a location for it to be considered your abode.
Lastly, we need to notify the relative of the nature of the documents. A process server isn’t allow to just dump papers on a family member and hope you figure it out. We will explain to the family member what the papers are so they understand the situation and will be sure to get the papers to you. The last thing anybody wants is for a relative to throw away court documents because they didn’t think they were important.
Substitute service helps defendants receive notification of their legal issues. It may seem strange that certain states, like Wisconsin, allow service on minors of suitable age, but a competent minor is more than capable of handing you the papers next time you are home.