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Getting Served with a Debt Collection Lawsuit

If a debt collection lawsuit has been filed against you and you learned about the lawsuit when your mailbox filled up with letters from attorneys telling you about it, you probably have not been served with the lawsuit yet.  It is important that you understand what it means to be served with a lawsuit and know what to do when it happens. 

What does being “served” with a lawsuit mean?

Getting served with a lawsuit, in the legal sense, means being formally notified that a lawsuit has been filed against you.  Generally, when you are served, you are considered to be on notice that the plaintiff has filed a lawsuit against you.  Being on notice of the lawsuit triggers your responsibility to respond to the lawsuit within a certain time period or risk the plaintiff winning by default because you did not answer. In a debt collection lawsuit, the papers you receive when you are served are your copy of the plaintiff’s lawsuit against you (usually titled as “Complaint” or “Statement of Claim”). 

Why is the date I was with the debt collection lawsuit important? 

Generally, when you are served with a debt collection lawsuit in Georgia, the clock starts ticking and you have thirty days from the date you were served to file an Answer with the court.  If you don’t file an Answer, the debt collector can get a default judgment, which means they can win by default because you didn’t file an answer.  In other words, the court may assume that what the plaintiff has claimed in his lawsuit against you is true, even if it’s not. 

The time between when the lawsuit is filed with the court and when the lawsuit is actually served on you usually depends on the county in which you live. 

This often depends on the county.  Sometimes the lawsuit is served the same day it is filed, but this is not often the case.  Usually, there are days, weeks, and occasionally even months between the time the debt collection lawsuit is filed and the date it is served upon the defendant.  If the plaintiff has the correct address at which you live, serving you might not be difficult.  If they do not have the correct address, it may take a while to realize that they don’t have the right address and get a better one. 

Either a Sheriff’s Deputy or a Private Process Server will serve the lawsuit

A lawsuit is typically served by a Sheriff’s Deputy or a “private process server” and who serves the lawsuit often depends on the county in which the lawsuit is filed and the county in which the defendant is being served.  Private process servers are simply non-law enforcement individuals that serve lawsuits as part of their job.  Some counties in Georgia do not allow private process servers to serve lawsuits and the Sheriff’s Deputies are the only ones allowed to serve lawsuits in that county.  Being sued by a debt collector is not a crime so please don’t confuse being served with a debt collection lawsuit by a sheriff’s deputy with being in criminal trouble.  Although the idea of a Sheriff’s Deputy coming to your home to give you official papers from the court might sound scary, serving lawsuits upon defendants is simply another part of their job.  They serve all types of lawsuits, not just debt collection lawsuits. 

What is it like being served with a lawsuit?

When you are served with a lawsuit, you receive your copy of the papers the plaintiff filed with the court to start the lawsuit.  For most people, the experience of being served with a lawsuit is not dramatic.  There’s a knock on the door and someone (sheriff deputy or private process server) asks if the defendant is home.  If the defendant is home, he or she is handed with the papers.  Pretty straightforward but keeping reading because other people living with you may receive the papers and your behalf. Although it’s not required, I have heard of instances where it is the sheriff’s deputy’s routine to ask the person that he or she is serving the lawsuit for identification first so a note can be made on who was served with the lawsuit.

Despite what many people believe, you are not required to sign for the lawsuit when you are served.   

Where do I get served?

The rules of who can be served with the lawsuit depends on where the lawsuit is served.  The majority of the time, you are served at your home.  The typical address that the debt collector provides to whoever is serving the papers is the defendant’s residence aka “their abode.” 

Other people who live with you at your residence, including some children, can be served with the lawsuit on your behalf.

If the lawsuit is served at your home, the lawsuit papers may be served on anyone at your residence who also resides there, including a spouse, relatives, roommate, parent, child, etc.  This kind of service of a lawsuit is called “Notorious Service.” The law generally assumes that if you live with someone that they will likely keep you in the loop if they receive important papers that are for you.  Of course, this isn’t always the case.  If you have a sketchy roommate who isn’t always good about telling you important things or giving you mail or other papers, this could be a problem for you if they are served with the lawsuit when you are away.  The fact that they didn’t tell you about the papers is not a defense to the lawsuit if the lawsuit is otherwise properly served. Also, it is not uncommon for older children and teenagers to be served at the home with a lawsuit on a parent’s behalf.  This is considered good service assuming the person who served the papers felt that the child was of “suitable age and discretion.”  Generally, this means that the child looks old enough and is aware enough to understand the importance of telling you about the papers.  If you believe you are going to be served with a debt collection lawsuit, you should tell those who live in your household that you expect someone to come to the door with important papers and that you will need to know if this happens as soon as possible. 

Occasionally, someone who is simply visiting your house and who does not live there may get served with the lawsuit.  This would not be proper service and can be asserted as a defense to the lawsuit if done properly and on time. 

Finally, if you have authorized your attorney to accept service of the lawsuit on your behalf, the attorney may be served with the lawsuit and the rules about residence don’t apply.

If you are not served with the lawsuit at your home, you can be served anywhere you can be found as long as you are personally given the lawsuit papers. 

Although other people can be served with the lawsuit at your home, if you are served anywhere else, you must be personally served with the lawsuit, not someone else.  For example, if the sheriff’s deputy or process server comes to your work, it would not be considered proper service to simply give the lawsuit to your boss and expect him to give it to you.  They must serve you. It’s not very common that a debt collector will try to serve you at your job or somewhere else unless they are having difficulty serving you at your home.