What to Do If You Receive a Summons or a Subpoena

Image shows a man unrolling an extremely large scroll. Text reads: "What is a summons? A summons is a court order requiring someone to appear in court. It includes: the name of the type of court issuing the summons, the name of the party receiving the summons, the number assigned to the case by the court, the names of the plaintiff (person filing suit) and defendant, how the person who receives the summons must respond, when the summons must be responded to, what the case is about"

Image by Jo Zhou © The Balance 2019

A sheriff comes to your business or home with a summons or you receive a subpoena by registered letter. It's always scary when something like that happens. So what do you do? 

First, we'll look at the differences between a summons and a subpoena and then what to do if you receive one. 

What Is a Summons?

In general, a summons is the beginning of a legal case. It signals the issue that needs to be adjudicated (tried in court). A summons can be used in either a civil or a criminal case.

Specifically, a summons is a document that is an order by a court requiring someone to appear in court. In civil lawsuits, a summons is issued to the defendant in the lawsuit, requiring his or her presence to defend a case. For example, if someone sues you in small claims court, the court sends out a summons requiring you as the defendant to attend the hearing at a specific place and time. 

Other types of summons might be for jury duty or to your business as the defendant in a class action lawsuit.

Sometimes a summons might be called a "summons and complaint." The complaint is the specific charge, the reason the lawsuit is being filed, and the type of relief (usually money) being sought.

For more serious matters, like divorces and lawsuits, the summons may be delivered by the local sheriff or another individual appointed by the court. A summons for jury duty is usually sent in the mail.


When you receive a summons, pay attention to the date by which you must reply. If the summons is for something more serious than jury duty, consider getting an attorney to help you work through the process.

What's Included in a Summons?

A summons is an official court document. It includes:

  • The name of the type of court issuing the summons. It's important to note the court that has jurisdiction, which might be in another state than your own.
  • The name of the party receiving the summons. It might be you as an officer of the company, or it might be to the "agent authorized to receive service" (that's the registered agent you listed on your business registration with your state).
  • The number assigned to the case by the court
  • The names of the plaintiff (person filing suit) and defendant
  • What the case is about
  • Information for the defendant on when the summons must be responded to
  • How the person who receives the summons must respond.

The party receiving the summons must sign to show that the summons has been received. For this reason, almost every summons is delivered in person, by an officer of the court which is hearing the case.

What Is a Subpoena? 

In general, a subpoena is a demand by the court to provide evidence for a court case. A subpoena is similar to a summons, but it comes after the court case has begun.

To receive a subpoena you may or may not be directly involved in the case as a plaintiff (the person making the claim), or the defendant (the person defending against the claim). The most common example of when you might receive a subpoena is if you are a witness in a court case.

In today's legal system, it's very common for plaintiffs and defendants to be required to give evidence under a subpoena.

A subpoena can be for documents needed as evidence or it may be for appearance to give evidence in a deposition or in court.

What's Included in a Subpoena?

The subpoena will include:

  • The court or government entity requesting your presence. It might be a court or a local or state board or government. For example, a county commission may demand you give testimony in a hearing about a proposed ordinance.
  • The matter - a lawsuit or an investigation.
  • The place, date, and time for your appearance.
  • A statement of the penalty for not showing up and complying with the provisions of the subpoena.

If You Receive a Summons or a Subpoena

A summons or subpoena is an official court document. In fact, the term "subpoena" comes from the Latin for "under penalty." You must respond to a summons or a subpoena as required and by the deadline required.


Not responding to a summons means that you may lose the case by default. For example, if you don't respond to a summons to small claims court as the defendant, the plaintiff gets the judgment (the court's decision). 

If you receive a summons, you will have a specific amount of time to reply to the summons. If you don’t reply, the other party may be given a default judgment, meaning that you have given up the right to contest the issue.

The most common reason to receive a summons is that someone is filing a complaint against your company. This could be a legal action or a debt.  You will be served in person or through your company’s Registered Agent. (You should have a Registered Agent for this purpose.)

In some cases, both company officers and the company itself may be served with a summons. If your business is a sole proprietorship, you will be served with a summons personally.

If you receive a subpoena, you must submit the required information or appear when required. In most cases, you will have to give a deposition (similar to testifying in court).

If you don't respond to a subpoena, you can be cited for contempt of court for your failure to appear.

If you need to reply to a summons or subpoena, include all the information about the case, so you can be sure your reply is filed correctly. 

In either case, if you cannot do what's required or you cannot show up when required, you may be able to ask the court for a change, which may or may not be granted, depending on the circumstances.

Do I Need an Attorney to Help With a Summons or Subpoena? 

It depends upon the circumstances. If the summons is to small claims court or for jury duty, or if it's a very simple issue, you might not need an attorney. It's always a good idea to get help from an attorney if you have questions or need help in dealing with the issue. 

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  2. Superior Court of California, County of Alameda. "Before You Sue - Information for the Plaintiff - 4. How Do I Serve the Defendant?" Accessed May 26, 2020.

  3. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. "Jury Service." Accessed May 26, 2020.

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  5. Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. "Before You Sue - Information for the Plaintiff: 2. What Are Summons and Complaint?" Accessed May 26, 2020.

  6. Butler County Clerk of Courts. "Service of Process." Accessed May 26, 2020.

  7. Superior Court of California, County of Alameda. "Frequently Asked Questions - When I Am Summoned as a Juror, Where Should I Go?" Accessed May 26, 2020.

  8. Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. "Complaint - Contract (PLD-C-001)," Pages 1-2. Accessed May 26, 2020.

  9. Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. "Summons Form (SUM-100)," Page 1. Accessed May 26, 2020.

  10. Judicial Council of California. "Personal Service." Accessed May 26, 2020.

  11. City of Lincoln California. "How Do I File a Claim, Summons or Subpoena?" Accessed May 26, 2020.

  12. Judicial Council of California. "Subpoena a Witness." Accessed May 26, 2020.

  13. Judicial Council of California. "Notices to Attend a Hearing and Subpoenas." Accessed May 26, 2020.

  14. Judicial Council of California. "Civil Subpoena (Form SUBP-001)," Pages 1-3. Accessed May 26, 2020.

  15. Judicial Council of California. "Who to Serve." Accessed May 26, 2020.

  16. Utah Courts. "Subpoenas." Accessed May 26, 2020.

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