The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
I heard a collection case had been filed against me. The Circuit Clerk confirmed that a case had been filed, and told me the court date. If I haven’t received any court papers yet, do I have to show up? What happens if I don’t?
But, caution: You can be served without knowing about it. If the Summons is served to someone at your residence, and then copies are mailed to you, it's effective as long as it’s at your “usual place of abode,” and on “some person of the family or a person residing there,” who’s at least 13 years old.
The reason “abode service” counts is that the person who gets served will tell you about it, since they’re family or live with you. Hopefully, that person will also give you the papers they received. But if they don’t, with luck you’ll get them in the mail. Abode service isn’t complete unless someone at your home is served, and copies are sent by regular postal mail to you.
Be sure, then, that somebody, where you live or stay, didn’t get served with the court papers aimed at you. Lots of people deny getting served, only to find out a household member got served and forgot all about it. Courts are pretty generous in saying who’s a family or household member who can accept abode service.
In Small Claims cases, it’s also possible to serve the Summons and Complaint by certified or registered mail. But only the Circuit Clerk’s office can send it, and the person getting sued must sign for it. If you don’t sign for it—or the mailman overlooks the “restricted delivery” requirement and lets somebody else sign for it—you haven’t been properly served.
If there was abode service, and you don’t show up, a default judgment can be entered against you for whatever the other side sued for.
If you have not been properly served, and you don’t show up, the court has no personal jurisdiction over you, and can’t enter a judgment against you. The case can be continued to another court date, and the other side can try again to serve you.
It’s tricky if you were improperly served. Two examples are if the person who filed the lawsuit says they completed abode service at some place that’s not your home, or if somebody else signed for the certified or registered mail that only you were supposed to sign for. Then, a judge in a high-volume courtroom may think you were properly served, and enter a default judgment against you if you don’t show up.
Of course, you can always voluntarily appear in the case, without having been served. That can save you court costs, by saving the person who is suing you from having to serve you.