How To Serve Papers To Someone You Can’t Find?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

Serving somebody with court papers can be a stressful process at the best of times, but when you don’t know where that person is, things become even more complicated.

In order to serve someone with papers, the person who sends the papers will need the receiving party’s address. If a person cannot be found at their address, it’s understandably difficult to ensure that the papers reach their intended recipient.

With that being said, serving papers to someone you can’t find isn’t impossible.

There are actually several avenues you can go down if you need to serve somebody with papers without knowing where they are, and we will be outlining these methods today

How Serving Papers Usually Works

Before we explain the process of serving papers when you can’t find the receiving party, it’s worth outlining how it differs from the usual method of serving someone with court documents.

For a person to serve another person with legal papers, the first individual must first file a complaint.

A complaint, in the context of the legal system, is a document containing an allegation of fault or liability. In the case of a personal injury complaint, for example, the complaint would outline how and why the injury occurred according to the complainant, specifying the fault of the other party.

Once the complaint has been filed, a process server is normally used to deliver the papers to the named at-fault party.

A process server is an individual over the age of 18 who is not involved in the case and has been trained in the proper way to deliver legal papers. In addition to serving papers to defendants, process servers often serve papers to witnesses and other involved parties. Documents served can include court orders, subpoenas, summons, and complaints.

In most cases, a process server will deliver court papers directly into a party’s hands at their place of residence, which is why an address is required. If an individual cannot be located at their address, other avenues, such as serving papers to somebody who is in their vehicle, may be attempted.

However, if someone can’t be found at home or in their vehicle, serving papers becomes more complicated.

How To Find Someone Before Serving Papers?

If the process server has attempted to serve papers to someone at their residence without success, there may be other methods of locating this person without resorting to alternative methods of service.

Obtain Background Information

Finding someone in order to serve them with court documents requires knowing basic information about them.

Before you try and locate this person, it’s helpful to know their full name (including any middle names) and their date of birth. You should also know what they look like (ethnicity, eye color, hair color, height, weight, whether they wear glasses, etc.)

When it comes to actually locating the person you’re looking for, you should make sure that you know their last known address and where they work. It’s also helpful to know where the recipient spends most of their time outside of home and work.

If you can find information regarding their vehicle type and insurance number, this is also likely to be useful since it’s possible to serve someone with papers in their car.

Phone numbers and bank details will also help you to locate a person if you can get hold of this information.


When trying to work out whether your recipient has moved from their last listed address, one of the most effective methods is to send mail to the address through the USPS (United States Postal Service).

If you mark the mail with ‘return service required’ and make sure to provide a return address. Assuming that the person in question reported their change of address to the postal services, the mail will be returned along with the new address.

Check Social Media

A person’s social media can often reveal their location, or at the very least, clues to their location. Therefore, it’s worth checking social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram if you can’t find them to serve them with papers.

Ask Friends And Family

Through someone’s social media profiles, you may also be able to find friends and family of your intended recipient. Usually, family and friends will be reluctant to provide information if they suspect legal proceedings are involved, but there is a chance that someone will be willing to help you in your search.

Online Searching Tools

There are websites online that can help you to locate a person if you provide a certain amount of information. You’ll need to pay for these services, but it’s a quick and easy way to find information about a person, especially if no friends or family are willing to cooperate.


In the United States, you can call the number 411 to obtain information about a person. If the 411 service has your recipient’s address, your problem is solved, but even if they can only provide you with a telephone number, you may be able to use this to find the address.

Contact Employers

If you know where the intended recipient of your court papers works, you can ask their employer to provide you with an address.

Alternatively, previous employers may have information about where the individual moved after ending their contract, so it’s also worth contacting previous workplaces.

Tax Office

We recommend this as a last resort because it can be quite a complex process, but you may also be able to find the information you need by contacting either the tax assessor or tax recorder’s office.

The information you already have on this person will need to be verified and you’ll probably end up with several search results, which you will need to check individually.

This process can vary between different Counties, so before you decide to go this route, you should familiarize yourself with how it works in your area.

How To Serve Papers To Someone You Can’t Find?

Once you’ve tried to the best of your ability to obtain information about the intended recipient of the legal documents in question, you’ll hire a process server.

Usually, the appointed process server will make several attempts to serve the papers the normal way. After a few failed attempts to serve the papers in person, the court will then take alternative routes to ensure the party in question receives their documents.

These alternative serving methods are as follows:

Substituted Service

If the recipient of the documents is not available at their address, the next step is usually substituted service.

Substituted service includes methods of serving a person that fall outside of the usual rules. This could involve leaving a copy of the papers at the address rather than directly delivering them into the recipient’s hands.

10 days after the papers were sent to the address, substituted service is considered to have been completed.

First-Class Postage

Sending legal documents via first-class mail is one of the easiest alternatives to physically serving an individual with papers, but it’s not highly recommended because there is no way of ensuring that the recipient has actually received the documents.

Nonetheless, sometimes there are very few alternatives to this method and people will be served with court papers via first-class postage.

Physical Posting

There are some cases in which it is acceptable to serve a person by physically posting the papers on a building.

One of the most common situations where this is allowed is where the recipient is being evicted from their home. Landlords who are legally within their rights to evict tenants can seek permission from the courts to post the complaint or summons on the building of residence mentioned in the eviction notice.

You could also obtain court permission to post the complaint or summons in a designated area at the courthouse if all else fails.

Electronic Methods

Electronic service is permissible in cases where all methods of physical service have been exhausted.

If you have not been able to serve the person in question with papers physically, the court may eventually grant permission for the papers to be served electronically.

Electronic methods of service can include email, fax, social media, or cloud services. Of course, with some of these methods, it can be difficult to ascertain if the papers have actually been received (you may have an old email for the recipient, for example), which is why it’s usually considered a last resort.


This service method is similar to physically posting court documents at the recipient’s address or at the courthouse.

If you have been unable to locate the recipient of the papers, you can legally post the summons or complaint in your local paper.

Because this method can understandably be viewed as a violation of the intended recipient’s privacy, most courts will require you to have exhausted most other alternatives before they allow you to proceed to this step.

Most will request that you send mail to the recipient’s last known address, request a forwarding address, and contact friends, family, ex-employers, and old coworkers before you post the documents publicly.

Certified Postage

If the person you are trying to find currently resides outside of your state, the best way to serve them with papers is to send them via certified postage.

However, in this case, it’s best to send a copy of the papers rather than the original documents themselves. You should also request a return receipt because sending mail to a different state comes with a higher risk of the documents not being received.

What Happens If Papers Can’t Be Served?
If you try all of the steps and methods outlined above, you stand a fairly good chance of the court documents reaching your intended recipient.

However, if you’re trying to serve someone with papers, there is also a good chance that they are actively trying not to be found, and in this case, it’s possible that all your efforts might fail.

If papers cannot be served using any of the steps listed above, the court case is likely to be postponed. If the recipient still can’t be found, the case may be thrown out altogether, which is why it’s so important to be proactive about seeking professional assistance to find the recipient early on in proceedings.

How Do You Serve Papers To Someone In A Different Country?

If the person you’re trying to serve lives in a different state, it’s fairly easy to send the papers through certified postage.

However, if the recipient lives in an entirely different country, you will need to do some research to find the appropriate method of delivering the documents.

The process you should follow will likely be listed under The Hague Convention. The service may be subject to international treaties, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the judgment outlined in the documents may not be legally enforceable where the recipient lives.

Therefore, it’s a good idea to speak with an attorney before taking any further steps in this scenario.

What Happens If Someone Refuses To Be Served?

Some people may refuse to accept physical documents presented to them by a process server.

If repeated attempts have been made to serve the papers physically and the recipient is refusing to accept them, the court may grant permission for the server to hand the papers to somebody else in the household.

Methods such as physical postage and sending documents to a person’s workplace may also be allowed in this situation.

It’s also important to note that someone refusing to accept summons or court orders may result in legal action being taken against that person.

How Many Times Will A Process Server Attempt To Serve Papers?

Usually, a process server will be required to make at least 3 attempts to serve papers in person before alternative avenues are explored. Some jurisdictions will require more than 3 attempts, however.

Courts also usually schedule deliveries at different times of the day to increase the chances of success. This makes sense because it means that attempts to deliver the documents may consistently fall during the recipient’s working hours if they are all made at the same time of day.

Final Thoughts

Serving papers to someone you can’t find is definitely more challenging than serving someone you have the location of, but it’s not impossible.

Where physical attempts to deliver the documents into the recipient’s hands have failed, the court may permit other methods of delivery, such as handing the papers to another household member, posting the papers on the building of residence, or sending the documents electronically.

If none of the approved alternative service methods are successful, you should contact an attorney for assistance to avoid the case being thrown out of court.