Besides sending your summons and complaint to the district court, you also have to “serve” both papers on each defendant in the case. The way to serve papers is explained in Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

You can have a friend or family member serve papers for you, or you can pay the U.S. Marshal’s office or a professional process server to do it. One of the advantages to gaining in forma pauperis status is that Rule 4(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure directs that your complaint will be served quickly and without cost by the U.S. Marshal’s Service.

You should know that if you ask for in forma pauperis status at the start of your suit, your legal papers will not be served on the defendants – and so your suit will not begin – until the court decides whether you can sue in forma pauperis.

While most courts grant in forma pauperis status quickly and routinely, some courts have a reputation for taking a long time. This is a serious problem. If you discover that the court in your district has long delays, or your motion to proceed in forma pauperis is denied, you could try one of the following methods to serve your complaint.

(1) If you can raise the money, pay the $350 filing fee yourself, and have someone outside the prison serve your papers for free. Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure describes how to do this and allows any person older than 18 who is not a party to the lawsuit to serve papers.

(2) Another way to deal with the service of process fee is that you can ask the defendants to waive service under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(d). You do this by mailing them a Request for Waiver of Service. You can find the forms for this request in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Appendix of Forms, Form 1A and 1B (You can find the Appendix of forms at the end of the Federal Rules). Make sure you save copies of both the Notice of Lawsuit and Request for Waiver of Service of Summons (one document) and the Waiver of Service of Summons. When you send these documents, make sure to include a copy of your complaint, a stamped envelope or other pre-paid means to return the waiver, and an extra copy of the request. If the defendant does not agree with your request to waive service, then you may later be able to recover the costs of personal service by a professional process service or a marshal.

The summons and complaint are the only documents you have to serve on defendants in this special way. However, it is very important to request the Local Rules from the district you plan to file in because different courts have different rules about filing and serving documents after the case has started. Different courts require different numbers of copies. You should follow the local rules whenever possible. In general, you will need to send the original of each document and one copy for each defendant to the Clerk of the Court for the U.S. District Court for your district. Also include two extra copies – one for the judge and one for the clerk to endorse (showing when and where it was filed) and return to you as your official copy. The court will have a marshal deliver a copy to each defendant, unless you ask that someone else be appointed to deliver them.

Be sure to keep your own copy of everything you send the court, in case your papers are lost in the mail or misplaced in the clerk’s office. If you cannot make photocopies, make copies by hand. If you are concerned about the safety of your documents, you might want to consider sending a copy of them to someone you trust on the outside. Try to always have a copy you can get access to easily.

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