Once you begin a lawsuit, you must arrange to have certain documents delivered to every defendant you have sued. Massachusetts has rules regarding what documents need to be delivered (or served), who is able to deliver these documents, and how long you have to arrange delivery. Properly delivering these documents is called service of process. The rules about service of process are fully explained in Rule 4 of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure. However, you should check for any special service requirements imposed by the statute governing your case.
Please note that in proceedings related to land registration or confirmation under G.L. c. 185, tax foreclosure under G.L. c. 60, and servicemembers cases, service procedures are different, and a summons isn’t issued when the complaint is filed.
In cases where service of process is your responsibility, you’ll buy a “summons” when you file your complaint in the Recorder’s office of the Land Court. A summons is an official order from the court. You must serve a copy of your complaint and a copy of the summons on each person you have sued. The Recorder’s office is located on the 5th floor of the Land Court at 3 Pemberton Square, Boston.
Making service of process
If your defendant is a person, you will usually need to hire a county sheriff to make service. You will need to pay the sheriff for the service. When a sheriff (or deputy sheriff) serves the defendant, they give the defendant the required copy of the summons and complaint. Then, the sheriff or deputy sheriff fills out the second page of the summons, called the “Return of Service.” A Return of Service is proof that the defendant was served.
Please note that special rules may apply for service on corporations or government agencies. See Rule 4 of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure.
In cases where service by a sheriff is required, you may file a motion asking the court to appoint a constable to make service of process instead. A Land Court judge will decide whether or not to allow your request.
The sheriff or constable will give you back the completed Return of Service, which you must file with the court.
In most cases, you must complete service of process within 90 days from the day you filed your complaint with the court. Again, you should always check to see if the statute governing your case requires a different time limit.
If you don't know where the defendant lives
If the sheriff or constable can’t serve the documents because the defendant can’t be found, you may request service by publication. A Land Court judge will decide whether to allow your request. Normally, in order to be approved, you’ll have to file a motion with the court, and the motion must be supported by a written statement explaining what you’ve done to try and find the defendant. Your motion for publication will only be allowed if the judge decides you’ve exhausted all reasonable efforts to find and serve the defendant.
If the defendant doesn’t live in Massachusetts
There are several methods for serving process on an out-of-state defendant that are in addition to what's allowed for service of process on a Massachusetts defendant. For example, you may follow the rules and laws of the state where the defendant lives. Or, in most cases, you may serve by “any form of mail addressed to the person to be served and requiring a signed receipt.” See Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 4.