How to Serve Custody Papers

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If you filed a Complaint for Custody, Parenting Time, and Child Support, you must have copies of your court papers served on (given to) your child’s other parent. To learn more, watch the video How to Serve Divorce or Custody Papers.

What Papers Do I Have Served?

The first papers you will have served on your child’s other parent are:

  • The Summons

  • The Complaint for Custody, Parenting Time, and Child Support

  • Any other papers you filed to begin your custody case

Warning! The Summons must be served on your child’s other parent within 91 days, or your custody case may be dismissed.

Can I Be the Server?

No. There are several ways you can have your initial custody papers served, but you cannot be the one to serve the papers. You can ask a friend or relative to serve the papers, or you can pay your local sheriff’s department, police department, or a process server. Whoever serves the papers must be at least 18 years old and cannot be a party in your case.

What Does the Server Do?

The server must do the following things:

  • Personally give your child's other parent a copy of your court papers or mail the papers (see the mailing rules below),

  • Fill out and sign the Proof of Service that is on the second page of the Summons (form MC 01), AND

  • File the Proof of Service or return it to you to file

Rules for Mailing

The server can mail the papers by registered or certified mail, with service restricted to the Defendant and a return receipt requested. This type of service only works if the Defendant accepts delivery of the papers and if you have a safe address where the return receipt can be mailed.

To serve the papers by mail, have a friend or relative go to the post office and pay to have the papers mailed to the Defendant this way. Once the papers have been delivered, you should get a green card (the return receipt) in the mail.

Completing the Proof of Service

If the Defendant filled out the "Acknowledgment of Service" section

The Defendant may have filled out the Acknowledgment of Service section at the bottom of the Proof of Service. If they did, the server will not need to fill out the rest of the Proof of Service before it is filed.

If the Defendant did not fill out the "Acknowledgment of Service" section

If the Defendant did not fill out this section, then the server needs to fill out and sign the "Certificate of Service/Nonservice" section. This includes filling out the Defendant's name, and the date, time, and address or place of service. Under the subheading "Attachments (if any)," they should fill out the names of all papers served besides the Summons and the Complaint.

If the Defendant was served by mail, be sure to attach the signed return receipt to the Proof of Service when you file it.

What If I Don’t Know Where My Child’s Other Parent Is?

If the server has tried to serve the other parent several times without success, or if you can't find out the other parent's address after making real efforts, you can ask the judge for permission to complete service another way. To do this, file a Motion and Verification for Alternate Service.

If the judge allows alternate service, the judge will sign an Order for Alternate Service. Then you can follow the judge’s directions for serving the papers.

If you need to serve your child’s other parent by alternate service, consider hiring a lawyer to help you with your custody case. You can use the Guide to Legal Help to get contact information for legal services or a lawyer referral service in your area.

What If My Child's Other Parent Is in Prison or Is on Active Military Duty?

Military Duty

Your custody case can be complicated if your child’s other parent is on active military duty. It may be difficult to find and serve papers on a service member stationed overseas. There are also state and federal laws that give people on active duty extra protections in civil cases. If your child’s other parent doesn’t answer your custody complaint, the court must appoint a lawyer for the other party before it can enter final orders. If you are filing for custody and the child’s other parent is on active military duty, you may want to hire a lawyer. If you need a lawyer and have low income, you may qualify for free legal help. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find a lawyer or legal services in your area.


Having papers served on an inmate is usually not hard. Call the Department of Corrections to confirm the incarceration and the other party's prison number and location. Then mail a copy of the complaint and other papers you filed to the prison. Also include the Proof of Service so the server can fill it out and send it back to you. Mail the papers by registered or certified mail, with service restricted to your child's other parent and a return receipt requested.

A prison employee can serve the papers and send you back the completed Proof ofService form along with the return receipt (this looks like a green card). Most Michigan prisons have a litigation coordinator to help with this process. You can also use the Personal Service on Prisoner and Affidavit form to ask the Warden or Administrator of the prison to serve the papers. When you receive the completed Proof of Service from the prison, attach the return receipt before filing it with the court clerk's office. The court must allow the other parent to participate in your custody case by phone, video conference, or in person.

How Do I Serve the Rest of the Papers I File?

Only the Summons, the Complaint, and the other initial divorce papers must be served by someone other than you. After the initial service, you can serve other court papers on the Defendant. You may serve the rest of the divorce papers by:

  • Mailing a copy to the Defendant’s last-known address,

  • Handing a copy to the Defendant in person, OR

  • Leaving a copy at the Defendant’s home with an adult who also lives there

Whoever serves the papers must fill out and sign a Proof of Service saying which papers were served. If you used our Do-It-Yourself Custody Case (Unmarried Parents) tool to prepare your court forms, several blank Proof of Service forms were included.

During the COVID-19 emergency, certain court documents must be served electronically, either through e-filing (if available) or e-mail. This includes an Answer to a Complaint filed by the other party (and any other forms you file with the Answer), a motion, or a response to a motion. However, you cannot serve a Complaint or a Petition electronically (for example, a Complaint for Divorce). To find out if your court has e-filing for your case type, look at the E-Filing Courts in Michigan page on the Michigan One Court of Justice website.

Keep the following rules in mind when serving documents by e-mail:

  • All documents must be in PDF format;

  • The e-mail subject line must include the name of the court, case name, case number, and the title of each document being sent;

  • If you e-mail a document at or before 11:59 p.m., it is considered served on that day. If you send the e-mail on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, it is considered served on the next business day;

  • Do not delete any e-mails you send to the other party, especially e-mails that served court documents. You must keep a record of sent items until a judgment or final order is entered and all appeals have been completed.

What Do I Do with the Completed Proof of Service?

Each time you or another server fills out a Proof of Service, file it with the circuit court clerk’s office. Keep a copy of each Proof of Service for your records.