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FindLaw Legal Dictionary

The FindLaw Legal Dictionary -- free access to over 8260 definitions of legal terms. Search for a definition or browse our legal glossaries.


Summons, n

What Is a Summons?

A summons is a document that is used to notify someone that they are being sued or are required to appear in court.

In Civil Cases:

The summons is prepared by the plaintiff, issued by the court, and served upon the defendant. It lets the defendant know that they have a certain number of days to respond to the lawsuit or to appear in court. Not responding (or appearing) during that time period could result in a default judgment against them.

In Criminal Cases:

A summons can be served on a defendant facing minor criminal charges at the request of the prosecuting attorney and upon issuance by the court. The summons to appear in court is used as an alternative to a warrant for arrest.


A summons is also used to notify someone that they are required to appear for jury duty or to appear as a witness.

Summons vs. Subpoena

Like a summons, a subpoena is a document from the court telling someone to do something. However, a subpoena usually requires that person to provide some kind of evidence such as a witness. Subpoenas are typically served after the lawsuit has begun.

People who do not respond to a summons risk automatically losing the case against them. People who do not comply with a subpoena risk fines, jail time, or being held in contempt of court.

Summons vs. Summon

The word "summon" can be used to describe the act of bringing someone into court by a summons.

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