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Process Serving: Ethical Dilemmas and Scenarios

Process Serving: Ethical Dilemmas and Scenarios

Recorded on June 30th with Kimberly Hamilton

Ethical and moral dilemmas occur within every profession including process serving. This discussion will explore different scenarios when working with clients, attorneys, individuals being served, and competitors. Being prepared is the key to maneuvering through these scenarios while guiding you towards making solid, ethical decisions for you, your company and all who are involved.

Kimberly Hamilton is a private investigator in North Carolina and owns Female Agents, Inc. She was a founding member of NCAPPS (North Carolina Association of Professional Process Servers) and currently is President of the association. She has previously served on the board for NCAPI and has been very active in both the private investigative and service of process professions since 2000. Kimberly is a former deputy with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department and currently teaches classes on Ethics; Process Serving; and Human Trafficking.

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Let’s start at a high level here, then get into ethics in process serving. What is a good definition of ethics and When we refer to business ethics what are we generally talking about, and why are they important in business?

I've attended classes where the philosophy and definitions of ethics has gone on for hours. I am willing to bet most of us have and do not care to do so again.So basically, it can be summed up whiling remaining short and sweet. It is good vs bad, right vs wrong, vice vs virtue. When thinking of ethical decisions, think about what good is going to come from this, what harm will it have and who is it going to benefit and who will it have a negative impact on. If you keep these simple things in mind when faced with faced with a dilemma, you are guiding yourself to making the best possible and hopefully, easier decision, either personally or with your business.

Having high standards of ethics and good practices is crucial to the success of any business. Why? For one, it helps attract new clients; how many key advertising words are linked to ethical behavior? Look at business websites, what words do you see over and over again? (professional, trustworthy, dependable, honest, accountable, dedicated,reliable, great customer service, committed, competent, ) All these terms are used to instill the idea that this company is the one you should hire ; Referrals are also important to success, these may come from other PS companies, lawyers, other types of clients, but it is the same thing, you want them to use your services; Client loyalty, which is making the new client into a regular client and is very crucial. All that hard work of obtaining a new client should not be wasted; High ethical standards reduces the risk of negative backlash or “doing the wrong thing”, it prevents that bad reputation, which we all can probably think of one process serving company that we know that has a bad reputation. Do you want to be THAT company? Setting the standards for employees. If you hire people to work in your office or to serve for you then you need to be clear in what you believe are best practices, as they are a direct reflection upon your company. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken with someone who answered the phone who was rude or did not have a clue on what they were talking about. Do I remember that persons name? No, I remember the company name. Clients want and NEED to know the companies that they hire know right from wrong, will do the right things, get the service done and will not make their company look bad for hiring them.

It seems obvious that process servers should be held to higher than normal standards when it comes to ethics. But, let’s talk about the reasons why for a moment. Why should our audience prioritize ethical practices.

We as process servers are serving legal documents, summonses, complaints, subpoenas, notices, orders and other court issues to individuals involved in one way or another with a lawsuit. Being involved in any lawsuit on any level is not usually a welcome or pleasant experience for most people. We are delivering documents related to personal financial matters, family situations such as child support, divorces, estate issues, and situations in which they may be trying to run and hide from. Process serving is an industry that practicing high ethical standards is a must: Dealing with other people’s personal business is not an area that can be compromised or jeopardized due to lack of professionalism, respect, and honesty. Our names, once we sign that affidavit become an important part of the judicial process and we must be prepared to sit in front of a judge on any given case we have worked and be able to be accountable for all our actions. We have to make sure that we have done our jobs in a professional, respectful and legal manner at all times.

Not having a strong set of ethical guidelines and procedures is very dangerous to your company, yourself personally and your employees and clients. Serving papers is not the same every time, we run into all kinds of individuals, clients and situations. Often there is no clear answer or easy way to do things. Often there are times in which the easiest answer is not the right answer. But by practicing high ethical standards and gaining confidence through making the right decisions, being a process server with dignity, values, and principles will be very easy.

When you are teaching your course on ethics what are some of the guiding principles, and how do those translate to the business of process serving?

There are 6 principles that I have found to be very useful and help form the basis of business ethics: honesty, integrity, obeying the law, respect, excellence, accountability. If these 6 principles are implemented into your business matters as well as your personal life, being ethical and doing the right things should never be a challenge.


The first one, honesty is pretty much a no brainer and being honest with yourself and all involved is a must. Remember, we work in an industry in which we may have to testify in court on any paper we serve. Being dishonest can land you in a world of trouble and in court, and possibly in jail.


Integrity, Your integrity is how you gain trust from anyone you encounter. You gain trust by doing the right thing in all situations and also having the courage to do the right things.

Obeying the Law

This too, is a must and should be a no-brainer, common sense. But we know that there are companies out there that will push the limits, even legal ones to get the serve done, make money, deal with competitors and other aspects of their job. There is no paper worth serving nor a client with enough money that would get me do something illegal.


Respect is one principle I see lacking, not only with our industry, but with a lot of professionals and individuals. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” seems to be a forgotten concept. Respect should be given because everyone deserves fair and equal treatment. Role playing is a good tool to utilize when it comes to respecting others. Just think of each person you deal with, either a client, attorney, paralegal, business owner, process server, person we are serving or the resident of the home as your mother, father, spouse, son, daughter….how would you want them to be treated in that situation? If someone was serving them papers, what tone of voice would you want them to use, what choice of words, what behaviour would you want them to use? You would want them to be treated with the greatest respect at all times. This in turn, is how you should treat others.


I think this principle is the quickest one, if lacking that can destroy a ps company. If you fail to give excellent customer service to your clients, it will be very hard to stay in business. Most ps companies talk to other ps companies, share many of the same attorney clients, belong to the same associations and by not providing quality excellent quality service, news gets around to others very quickly. Providing excellence in every step of serving a paper makes good business sense. Your clients should be confident that they have hired the best person for that serve and you should feel that you do an excellent job from the start all the way to the finish.


Finally, accountability. We live in a time where it is the norm to blame others, to point fingers, to make excuses, go the easy route, sweep things under the rug and where responsibility for one’s own actions seems to be a disappearing act, Being ethical means holding yourself and your business accountable and responsible for every single action. It means owning up to a mistake, being honest, standing by your actions and keeping your word and promises. If you quote a client for 6 attempts in 7 days, then you better be doing just that.

Those are 6 basic principles that you should be incorporating into your daily routine and are a good, solid foundation for a successful business. They protect you from doing the wrong things and will impress those you work with when you choose to do the right things.

In talking to you leading up to today, it seems you get asked the question “What would you have done in this scenario?”, quite often. It’s a question that you can’t really answer without having been there, in the shoes of the process server. But, what are common scenarios you’re asked about, and what do you want process servers to consider in those scenarios?

I have compiled a list of Dilemmas and Scenarios that I have experienced myself or discussed with other servers over the past several years. I like to think and I like to make people think. I want the process server to think about how they would handle each of these situations and what steps they would take in making the right decision. So lets read off some of the scenarios.


  1. A client calls you to cancel a serve. You are one minute away from the address where you will be attempting. Do you still charge? discount? Not charge at all?
  2. A client prepays for a serve. Two weeks later, you receive a second check for that same job. What do you do with that check?
  3. A client emails over documents and upon printing, you notice that the documents cannot be read, they are blurred and too light. The client says that is the only copy and to serve them anyway. What do you do?
  4. You receive a paper for a business that you have attempted before and know it is a bad address and they closed their door several years ago. Do you go back again to the address or fill out the affidavit based on the info you know?
  5. A new client calls and wants to email you documents to serve along with a copy of the check. You get the serve done about a week later and still no check has arrived. Do you hold the affidavit until payment arrives?


  1. Charging higher fees to attorneys than you would for others. Is this fair? ethical?
  2. An attorney wants you to serve a paper on the last day possible to give the recipient very little time to prepare or respond. They are very clear about their intentions. Is this being fair to all parties?
  3. An attorney wants you to serve a paper to Mr. Smith at 456 Happy Lane. You attempt and was told he does not live there and the client does not have a description. The attorney does not care, states you are wrong and wants you to go back and serve it to someone, anyone. How do you handle?

Individuals/ Businesses being served:

  1. VERY common one. The individual you are serving is obviously intoxicated. Do you still serve knowing they may not be understanding the situation? What about being mentally challenged? Suffering from dementia? I had a situation in which the client wanted me to serve someone who was under hospice care with hours to days to live.
  2. Wrong middle initial, client says that does not matter
  3. The person served demands to know who hired you. What do you do?

Competitors and Other Servers

  1. You receive a paper in the mail to serve. It has your address but the name of a local competitor on the field sheet. You do not remember a call about this serve. Do you call the client to clarify who they were sending it to or go serve the paper?
  2. A client calls and is upset they never received an affidavit or response to emails. You inquiry about the serve and find out it is was sent to a local competitor that you have “heard” provides bad service. Do you tell the client what you have heard? Try to get the business?
  3. A fellow process server tells you that 123Company owes them for several serves and it has been months trying to collect payment with no results. 123Company is a regular client for you and you have had no issue with getting payment. 123Company calls you to serve a paper and now wants you to invoice them. What do you do
  4. A fellow process server tells you that they are doing serves for 123 company by just making calls to determine correct addresses and not ever physically attempting the address. They justify that 123 company pays too little. This company is also a client of yours. Do you say anything? If so, to whom?
  5. A process serving company calls to get update on a paper that you forgot about for whatever reason. It has been a week and you have not attempted yet. What do you tell the client?


  1. Your company receives a paper to serve and you send out server #1. They do 2 attempts and become ill. You attempt 3 more times as the job requires 5 attempts. It becomes a non-serve. How do you handle the affidavit? Who signs the affidavit?
  2. You have had client 123company for years. Another process server in your state sends you a paper in your area and you notice on the affidavit, the name of 123company. You wonder why it was not sent to you directly. Do you say anything? If so, to whom?

Just some scenarios to think about. Some have obvious right vs wrong answers, some do not. Gives you some things to think about if you are ever stuck on surveillance or “wait time”

Marketing and Ethics

Ethical marketing should promote honesty, fairness and responsibility. Marketing is targeted to large groups of people with varying opinions and ideas of what is “right” or “wrong” so careful and strategic marketing is crucial. For example, there are companies that advertise “unlimited attempts”. Well to the client, that could mean many things such as three attempts a day over a period of 4 weeks. They may think it includes other addresses, work places at no extra charge. It gives a negative impression about other companies who may state they do 5 or 8, or however many attempts is not doing as much as you are.. Is that ethical? There is also the “We serve any paper anywhere for 29.95!!” type of advertising Again, this type of marketing can lead to many different impressions and be very misleading. These types of marketing are generally used to create a negative impression about other companies. Saying “ we do more for less” or “hire us because they only fill in the blank….”should not be the image you want your clients to form about your company. Instead of being negative in a roundabout way, market what you feel are your company’s strengths are. If you take pride in doing that first attempt within 24 hours on each and every paper, then use that. Marketing should be about your company, your service, your ethical standards, what you will be giving the client in exchange for hiring you. And make sure your business actions match your marketing words. If you advertise that first attempt in 24 hours on all papers, then you have to responsible and follow through with just that.

Tools to make good ethical decisions.

Some simple steps when faced with a dilemma

Stop and Think

Very rarely are ethical decisions a now or never situation, you do not want to make any rash decision that may come back to harm you or others later.

Clarify the good and the bad.

Carefully weigh out the what good will come of this... who will it help, how would I feel if the situation was reversed, what is the negative side, will it harm others, if so, who?


Having adequate information is important. Verify new information, question and verify information given to you by clients. I don’t know how many times I have had an attorney tell me something and they were quite convincing, but upon research, I found out they were wrong.

Consider the Consequences

Is the decision legal? Violate my own values or beliefs? Cause harm to others? Imagine the decision is already made and ponder the results.

Phone a Friend

Call a friend or colleague you trust. Maybe you have an attorney friend or someone else who owns a business or even a fellow process server. You don’t have to give them full details and names, but having an outside point of view (even two or three point of views) can help you make the decision.


Monitor what happens after the decision is made. If you do not get the desired results, you may want to re-evaluate and make a new decision. If the results are positive and you feel good about them, remember that and use it in the future. It will help when the next dilemma surfaces and it will give you confidence that you have done the right thing and made a strong ethical decision.

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