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Establishing Paternity - Serving the Papers

Once you file your case, you have to "serve" the court papers. It is not enough to call the person on the phone and tell him about the case.  The court will need proof that he knows about the case.  "Serving" is delivering court papers to the defendant that tell him:

  • who is taking him to court,
  • what the case is about,
  • court dates,
  • when he needs to answer, and
  • if you are filing for divorce or separate support, about the automatic restraining order.

How do I serve the complaint and other court papers?

Find your local  sheriff or constable and give him or her:

  1. the summons,
  2. the approved Affidavit of Indigency (be sure to write on it that you need the state to pay the service fees). The Affidavit of Indigency is for the sheriff or constable. It  tells the sheriff or constable to bill the state for his or her fees;
  3. a copy of the Complaint; and
  4. a copy of the Affidavit Disclosing Care or Custody Proceedings, if you had to file one. 

How does the other party get served?

If you know the person you are serving will sign the summons

You do not need to use a sheriff or constable if the person you are serving will sign the summons. You can just mail or give the papers to the person you are serving, but he must sign the section of the summons that says he got the papers.  If he agrees to sign the summons, it is called "accepting service." The person you are serving will have to get his signature "notarized". He will have to sign the summons in front of a notary public. Most banks have a notary public. "Accepting service" is not agreeing to being named the father or anything else. It is only signing a receipt for the papers. Ask him to send the signed, notarized summons back to you. Make a copy of the signed summons and give the original to the clerk at the court for filing. Filing the signed summons is called "return of service."

Serving a Complaint to Establish Paternity if you do not know where the defendant is

If you do not know where to find the defendant, you can serve the papers by having the deputy sheriff or constable leave them at the defendant's last and usual residence and by mailing copies to him or her.

Serving someone who is out of state

If the person you are serving lives out of state, you can send him the papers by certified mail. But it might be better to get a sheriff to serve him where he lives. Your local sheriff's office should be able help you find the sheriff’s office where the person lives. If you have an approved Affidavit of Indigency, make sure that the out of state sheriff is willing to bill the state of Massachusetts for his services. You might have to call a few different places to find a sheriff who will accept your Affidavit of Indigency and bill the state of Massachusetts.

If you are not sure the person you are serving will sign the papers, but he lives in Massachusetts and you know his address .

  1. Find your local  sheriff or constableand give him or her:
    1. the summons,
    2. the approved Affidavit of Indigency (be sure to write on it that you need the state to pay the service fees). The Affidavit of Indigency is for the sheriff or constable. It  tells the sheriff or constable to bill the state for his or her fees;
    3. a copy of the Complaint; and
    4. a copy of the Affidavit Disclosing Care or Custody Proceedings. 
  2. The sheriff or constable will give the papers to the person you are taking to court.
  3. After the sheriff or constable serves the papers, he or she returns the original summons to you.  On the summons the sheriff or constable fills out, dates, and signs the section called "Proof of Service".
  4. The next step for you is to return the signed original summons to the court.  This is called making "return of service."  Take the summons back to the court as soon as you get it from the sheriff.  It is proof that the other person has the papers that tell him about the case. Be sure to make a copy of the signed original summons for your records.

What happens after I return the summons to the court?

The person you are taking to court has to file an Answer to your complaint. The summons tells him how much time he has to answer. In a Paternity case, he has 20 days from the time he gets served with the papers to file an Answer.

When you return the summons to the court, the clerk looks to see if any court date has been scheduled. 

If no court date has been scheduled, the clerk will schedule a "Case Management Conference" and send you notice of it.  The Case Management Conference will be at least 30 days after you file "return of service".

At the Case Management Conference the next court date will be assigned.

If a court date has been scheduled for a motion for temporary orders, the clerk will not schedule a Case Management Conference when you return the summons to the court.

If you file any Motions for Temporary Orders, the date you scheduled for the hearing might be before the other person files an Answer. 

Produced by Jeff Wolf, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Created November, 2011

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