Service of process of domestic relations complaints in Probate and Family Court

Learn about service of process in divorce, child custody, and other family law cases.

Table of Contents

What is service of process?

Service of process is the way you deliver court papers to the person required to respond to them. This person is called the defendant.

You must tell the defendant, in writing:

  1. That there is a case
  2. What the case is about
  3. What the defendant has to do
  4. If there’s a court hearing and
  5. When and where to come to court.

Why do I have to tell the defendant about the case?

Unless the court believes there’s an emergency, the court can only make an order if the defendant knows there’s a case. A defendant must have a chance to come to court and present their side of the story.

When do I have to notify the defendant?

In most family law cases, you have 90 days after you file the complaint to serve the defendant.  For a Complaint for Contempt, the defendant must be served at least 7 days before the hearing date.

How do I notify the defendant?

After you file the complaint, you’ll get a summons and tracking notice. You need to “serve” a copy of the summons, complaint, and tracking notice to the defendant.

Usually you need to hire a sheriff or constable to serve the defendant. There are also directories of constables online. You’ll need to pay the sheriff or constable for the service or give them a copy of your approved indigency form. When a sheriff serves the defendant, they give the defendant a copy of the summons, complaint, and tracking notice.

Then, the sheriff fills out the second page of the summons, called Return of Service. Return of Service is proof that the defendant was served.

Once this is completed, the original summons (not a copy) must be filed with the court. Check with the sheriff to see if they will file it for you or if you must file it with the court yourself. It’s your responsibility to make sure the original summons is filed.

What if I don't know where the defendant lives?

First, have the sheriff try to serve the defendant at the last place you knew the defendant lived or worked. If the sheriff’s return of service says the defendant wasn’t found, you can get service of process by publication in a newspaper. Before you can do this, you need to get approval from the court. To get approval, follow these steps:

  1. Ask the Register for a Motion for Service by Alternate Means and Affidavit of Diligent Search, and whether the court has a sample you can look at.
  2. Complete the Motion for Service by Alternate Means and Affidavit of Diligent Search.
  3. Once the Motion for Service by Alternate Means and Affidavit of Diligent Search is completely filled out, mail the Motion for Service by Alternate Means and Affidavit of Diligent Search, to the court or file it in person with the Register. Ask the Register if you need to appear before a judge or if you’ll be notified by mail.
  4. If the judge allows your motion, follow specifically what the order says. If you need to publish the notice in the newspaper you'll get an order. The order will say which newspaper to publish the notice in and when to publish it. It will also give you the wording for the notice. Bring the notice to the newspaper and give it to their legal notices department. After it’s published in the newspaper, get a copy of that page of the newspaper and file it with the court to prove it was published.

What if the defendant doesn't live or work in Massachusetts?

You must find someone who’s authorized to serve the complaint and summons where they live or work. The Register may be able to help you find someone to serve the papers there.

What if the defendant is willing to receive a copy of the complaint from me?

If the defendant is willing to accept service or accept a copy of the complaint, summons, and tracking order directly from you, they must sign the summons where it says “Acceptance of Service” in front of a notary public. Then you must file the return of service with the court. Most banks have, and most attorneys are, notaries public. There may be a small fee for the services of a notary public.


Last updated: June 21, 2021

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