What is a Subpoena vs Summons? List of Differences

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A subpoena and a summons are similar. They both give you notice about an upcoming court proceeding. Where they differ mostly has to do with who they are given to; when they are given; and what they are used for.


A summons is the official notice of a lawsuit. It is given to the person who is being sued. The reason is that if a person has a lawsuit filed against them, they must know about it. It is required to follow the laws of your state to provide the summons to the defendant so the case is filed properly.

Any time you file a lawsuit, you must given them a summons. This provides them with official notice of the suit. The formal name of giving the defendant a summons to come to court is ‘service of process.’ Each defendant to the lawsuit must get a separate summons. You are not allowed to serve notice to the defendant. A summons can be served in three ways:

  • By the sheriff
  • By a private process service
  • By certified mail in certain cases

Service by the sheriff is the simplest way to serve the summons. You generally need to pay a fee to the sheriff’s office unless you are in possession of a court order that waives this fee.

If you want the sheriff to do this, you can take the summons to the sheriff’s office. You generally need the original and two copies, with the complaint attached to both. The sheriff will give the summons to the person listed on the document by hand. They also can give it to a party in the residence who is at least 13.

The sheriff usually will only try to issue the summons once. If the defendant is not there, you may next want to use a private process server. This service will try to serve notice more than once.

Another option is to deliver a summons by private process server. You will probably have to ask the court to let you use a private process server. To do so, you need to file a motion for appointment of special process server. This person must be at least 18 and cannot be a party to the lawsuit. In most cases, private process servers are professional, private investigator companies. This person can only serve the defendant after the judge has given his or her approval. After the summons is served, the private process server completes an affidavit by signing and notarizing it. The court must have record that the summons was given.

Last, you can have the summons delivered by certified mail. This may be allowed in small claims cases. It is not required to have another person serve the defendants. You can have the summons and copy of the complaint delivered by certified mail.

Sometimes a summons is not properly served. If you are improperly served, it is recommended to go to court on the date on the summons and inform the judge that the summons was not served in the proper manner and/or by the proper person. The judge should not let the case proceed until you are properly served. The judge probably will not dismiss the case; he may instead allow the plaintiff to attempt to serve you again.


A subpoena is a court order that may require the party to go to court, a deposition or to give documents and evidence to you. The subpoena must be served on the person.

Subpoenas are often necessary because a witness to an alleged crime may not willingly testify in court. You can issue a subpoena for the witness and requires them under the law to come to court. A subpoena can also be used during discovery. This is the process before a trial that allows both sides to discover information and evidence to prepare the case. It is during discovery that you can subpoena a person to attend a court hearing or to attend a deposition. You also can use a subpoena to obtain evidence from person who is not being sued.

Generally, you can subpoena a witness by getting the subpoena form at the office of the clerk. You fill in the case name, the contact information for the witness and which courtroom is hearing the case. When a witness is subpoenaed, you must pay them a standard witness fee and their costs of travel. The clerk of the court can help you to determine the amount.

At this point, you or any adult can serve the subpoena and payment to the witness. A subpoena may also be given via certified mail.

Ignoring a Subpoena or Summons

Subpoenas and summonses are different, but neither should be ignored. You should speak to a defense attorney if you get either.

A summons is simply an invitation to come to court. It is not an order, so it is not necessary to do what it ways. But if you ignore it, you will probably lose the case in front of the court. When people do not show up for a summons, the court normally decides the case against them. The court could mandate that you must pay a fine or must cease doing something. You will have to adhere to the final decision whether or not you went to court.

However, note that you cannot ignore a summons called a citation to discover assets. If you lose a lawsuit and owe money and do not pay it, you could get this citation. If you ignore it, you could face serious penalties.

Regarding a subpoena, it cannot be ignored. You are being ordered to court. If you ignore the subpoena, the court will hold you in contempt and may issue a warrant for your arrest. You could face jail time, as well as a large fine. If you get a subpoena and do not want to go to court, talk to an attorney immediately for guidance, but do not ignore it.