A summons is a legal document that is issued by a court in a civil lawsuit, or by a government agency in an administrative action. The document notifies the defendant he is being sued, or that there is an administrative action against him, as well as the date and time of the first hearing. A summons also provides the defendant with the opportunity to respond to the case if he wishes to do so. To explore this concept, consider the following summons definition.

Definition of Summons


  1. A legal document that notifies a defendant that a lawsuit has been filed against him.
  2. A call by authority to appear before a court or judicial officer.


1250-1300        Middle English somons

What is a Summons

According to the law, when an individual (the “plaintiff”) files a complaint initiating a lawsuit against another party (the “defendant”), he is legally required to inform that party that he has done so. The summons provides the defendant with the identity of the court in which the lawsuit has been filed, identifies all of the parties involved in the lawsuit, and bears the signature and official seal of the court clerk. The summons is served with the complaint on the defendant, at which point the lawsuit officially begins.

Information in a Court Summons

In some states, summonses are written in legal English, which may be difficult to understand. Other states have drafted their court summons in plain English that prominently states ” Notice! You have been sued.” The other information contained in a summons may vary slightly by jurisdiction, but generally includes basic identifying information of the plaintiff and defendant, the date of the first hearing, if scheduled, and the amount of time the defendant has to respond to the lawsuit.

Civil Summons

A civil summons accompanies a complaint in a civil lawsuit or family law matter. The civil summons must be personally served by a process server, sheriff, constable, or other person over the age of 18. While this type of summons specifies the court in which the action is filed, and information about answering the lawsuit, it is the complaint that provides comprehensive information about the lawsuit itself. The complaint in a civil lawsuit also specifies the court in which the lawsuit is pending, provides the names of every party to the action, and details the reason for the lawsuit and what the plaintiff is seeking in damages. Failing to respond to a civil summons and complaint may result in the plaintiff being awarded a default judgment, and whatever he is seeking in damages.

Serving a Civil Summons, Complaint, or Answer

Serving a summons and complaint on the defendant, or an answer on the plaintiff, there are certain rules that must be followed. This is referred to as “service of process,” and must be completed properly, as specified by the state’s laws. There are several methods of service, all of which require service to be done by a mentally competent person over the age of 18, who is not involved in the case. While the summons and complaint must be served in person, the answer and most other documents as the case progresses may be served by mail. Whatever method of service is used, the server must complete and sign a proof of service of form, which is filed with the court.

How to Answer a Summons

The first step to take after being served with a civil summons and complaint is to read everything carefully. After assessing the situation, the defendant should determine if it is in his best interest to hire an attorney. If an attorney is hired, he will help the individual provide an answer to the summons and complaint. Answering a civil summons actually entails providing a written response to the complaint, addressing each allegation made by the plaintiff. The answer must be filed with the court within the time limit specified on the summons, and a copy served on the plaintiff.

What is an Administrative Summons

Certain governmental agencies have the right to demand records or information, including financial information, from individuals when necessary. This is done by the issuance of an administrative summons or subpoena. For example, the Internal Revenue Service issues an administrative summons when a person or entity is required to appear before the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury or other IRS employee. The person summoned may be an accountant or other person related to, or in charge of, business accounts. The summoned person is required to produce evidence in the form of records and data. He may also be required to testify under oath in front of a representative of the IRS.

Criminal Summons

A criminal summons is sometimes issued to notify an individual that he is facing criminal charges. Rather than arresting the individual, a criminal summons, or “summons in lieu of arrest,” notifies the individual of the criminal charges against him, as well as the date on which he must appear in court to enter a plea. Criminal summonses are used for both misdemeanor and felony charges, making it important for someone receiving one to consult an attorney. Failing to appear in court on the date specified in the summons usually results in an arrest warrant being issued, and may result in additional criminal charges.

A Citation or Notice to Appear

A citation or notice to appear may be issued by a law enforcement official at the scene of an incident, such as a traffic infraction, traffic accident, or certain misdemeanor crimes. This type of summons usually provides the offender with one of two options: (1) Enter a guilty plea by paying the violation before a date specified on the citation, or (2) appear before the judge on a specified date to contest the charges. If the individual who has received a summons in the form of a citation or notice to appear fails to do one or the other, he may be charged with the crime of “failure to appear.”

Jury Duty Summons

In order to find jurors to sit on any case, the court sends out questionnaires to a random list of registered voters and people possessing valid driver’s licenses within the court’s jurisdiction. The court uses these forms to determine which of these individuals are qualified to serve on a jury. The court then sends out a jury duty summons to each person on the list of potential jurors. Potential jurors who report on the date specified on the summons then face a process called “voir dire.” This process involves answering questions posed by the attorneys and the judge to determine whether they are suitable for the specific trial at hand. This is done to eliminate potential jurors who could not provide fair and unbiased decisions regarding the case.

While many people are tempted to ignore a jury duty summons, that can result in negative consequences. In some states, a person who fails to respond to a jury duty summons may face jail time or hefty fines. In fact, in 2003 alone, the state of Massachusetts handed down over 96,000,000 in fines to people ignoring jury duty summonses. If a person responds to the summons, and is selected for jury duty, he has a duty to hear witnesses, evaluate evidence, and review other information presented during the trial in order to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

Grand Jury Summons

A grand jury summons is similar to that of a jury duty summons, but the goal of the jury and the process is different. A grand jury is a pool of people who review evidence presented by the prosecutor to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to charge an individual with a crime. Grand jurors view evidence, hear testimony, question witnesses, and work together to this end. Grand juries often serve terms of a few months, rather than being convened for only one case. Ignoring a grand jury summons can have the same negative consequences as ignoring a jury duty summons.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Custody – The protective care of something, or someone.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Default – Failure to fulfill an obligation, or to appear in a court of law when summoned.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • DivorceThe legal termination of a marriage.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.