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Serving the Defendant in Probate and Family Court

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed March 2020

After you file a complaint at the Probate and Family Court, you have to “serve” the person you are taking to court.

Serving is the formal way to tell another person you are taking them to court. That person is the “defendant.”  You are the "plaintiff". 

When you file a case, the clerk gives you

  1. a Track Assignment Notice and
  2. a "summons" to serve on the defendant.

The Track Assignment Notice tells you:

  • You have to serve the defendant,
  • The number of days you have to serve the defendant,
  • you need to return "proof of service,"
  • If you do not serve defendant the judge may dismiss your case, and
  • The most time that should go by before the case goes to trial, is settled, or dismissed.

The summons tells the defendant:

  1. you have started a case,
  2. what the case is about,
  3. the number of days the defendant has to answer, and
  4. if the defendant does not answer, there will still be a hearing and the judge will make a decision. The court will not wait for the defendant to answer.

The Probate and Family Court uses 3 different summons forms.

Each summons is for a different kind of case and has different rules for serving.

They are: 

Divorce/Separate Support Summons - for

  • Complaint for Divorce or
  • Complaint for Separate Support.  

Domestic Relations Summons - for

  • Complaint to Establish Paternity
  • Complaint for Support-Custody-Parenting Time for unmarried parents,
  • Complaint for support of a spouse or a child of married parents, or
  • Complaint for Modification.

Contempt Summons - for Complaint for Contempt.


In a 209A restraining order case, the police will serve the papers on the abusive person. You do not have to serve them or get a sheriff or constable to serve them.

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