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Defective Service of Process and Vacating a Child Support Order

Hodges v. Delaney

When seeking a judgment against someone, the first step, and an essential one, is properly serving that person with the complaint or petition. Defective service of process can significantly alter the outcome of a case, as seen in Hodges v. Delaney, where the First District reversed the Circuit Court’s refusal to vacate a 17-year-old paternity and child support judgment (“Judgment”) because Terrance Delaney was able to present evidence that the initial paternity and child support petition was not properly served on him in 2004. The First District held that Terrance’s delays in challenging the Judgment, for improper service, did not bar him from having the Judgment vacated. The reason: the Circuit Court never acquired personal jurisdiction over Terrance because of the defective service of process and the Judgment was, as a result, void.

What Is Service of Process?

In a child support proceeding, a court cannot take action against an individual unless the court has first obtained personal jurisdiction over the individual. The concept of personal jurisdiction has both a legal component and a mechanical component. A court can only exercise personal jurisdiction over an individual who has sufficient ties to the state in which the court is located – this is the legal component. However, even if an individual has sufficient contacts to the state in which the court is located, the defendant/respondent still has to be properly served with the relevant complaint or petition. This mechanical process of getting the complaint or petition to the right person is what the First District addressed in Hodges.

Mechanically acquiring personal jurisdiction over an individual in a paternity and child support case involves getting that individual properly served with a copy of the petition. When the petitioner knows how to find the respondent, he or she can try to have the petition “personally” served on the respondent. This means that the petition is physically given to the respondent by a process server.

Sometimes, however, it is difficult to actually find the respondent in order to physically hand the person a copy of the petition. Under Illinois law, the Sheriff or a process server can serve an individual at their “usual place of abode,” by “leaving a copy . . . with some person of the family or a person residing there, of the age of 13 years or upwards.” Under this type of substitute service, the defendant or respondent is not actually handed a copy of the complaint or petition. Nonetheless, a presumption arises that the defendant/respondent will get a copy under these conditions. A defendant/respondent, however, can challenge the presumption.

What Happened in Hodges v. Delaney?

The lawsuit against Terrance was commenced by the Department of Healthcare and Family Services (“Department”), when the Department filed a petition (“Petition”) to establish that Terrance was the father of Jacqueline Hodges’ daughter. The Department also asked in its Petition that the court enter a child support order against Terrance. The Petition was filed on February 20, 2003.

The Department’s Petition was not personally served on Terrance. Instead, the Petition was left with an individual named William Delany at an address located on Chase Avenue on April 2, 2003. The process server prepared a Certificate of Service stating that the Chase Avenue address was Terrance’s “usual place of abode,” and that William Delany was Terrance’s brother.

Hearings were subsequently held in the newly commenced lawsuit. Terrance did not appear at any of the hearings. The court entered a default judgment establishing paternity and setting a child support amount.

Almost 10 years after the Petition was filed, Terrance filed a motion to challenge the paternity and child support judgment entered against him (in October 2012). Terrance argued that he was never served with the Petition. Specifically, Terrance claimed that he never lived at the Chase Avenue address and did not know anyone named William Delaney. Terrance, however, did not appear at a court hearing on his motion, and the court struck his motion. Terrance was, however, given leave to refile his motion. These events took place in mid to late 2013.

Terrance then did nothing for approximately six years. On October 3, 2019, Terrance filed a new motion, again claiming that he never lived at the Chase Avenue address and did not know anyone named William Delany. Terrance supported his motion with several types of evidence that included an Affidavit from him and another Affidavit from his brother. Terrance’s bother stated in his Affidavit that when the Petition was served at the Chase Avenue address, Terrance lived with him at his residence on Touhy Avenue. Both denied having a bother or family member named William Delany.

The Department did not present any evidence showing that Terrance actually lived at the Chase Avenue apartment, nor that William Delany was Terrance’s brother or even a family member. Instead, the Department argued that Terrance waited too long to file his motion and that he did not act diligently in challenging the Judgment.

The Circuit Court denied Terrance’s motion on the ground that he “failed to demonstrate he exercised due diligence in presenting his defense or claim . . .”

The First District Reverses

As a general matter, the type of motion addressed in Hodges must be filed within two years of the entry of the Judgment. The First District held, however, that the two-year rule did not apply to Terrance’s motion. The First District pointed out that the two-year rule typically applies to claims that the lower court made a factual mistake when it initially entered the Judgement, and the motion presents new facts that were not previously presented before the court. Terrance’s motion was different. While Terrance did present “new” evidence, his motion also raised a critical legal issue: whether the Circuit Court had jurisdiction over him when it entered the paternity and child support judgment. Whether the Circuit Court had personal jurisdiction over Terrance was a legal issue that was not subject to the two-year limitation period or the due diligence requirement.

The underlying premise of the First District’s opinion is that when a court does not have personal jurisdiction over a party, any judgment entered against that party is void at its inception. Terrance could challenge the initial judgment against him, even though it had been entered 17 years earlier. Indeed, it did not matter that Terrance obviously knew about the judgment at least six years before he filed the current motion.

The First District held that Terrance’s evidence was not rebutted by the Department and showed that he did not in fact live at the Chase Avenue address. While the Certificate of Service expressly stated that the Chase Avenue address was Terrance’s “usual abode” and that William Delany was a family member, the court was not bound by these statements. The First District pointed out that facts the process server would personally know are entitled to significant weight and are difficult to overturn; however, the types of facts a process server will personally know are limited. For example, the process server would have personal knowledge of facts such as the date of service, the address he or she went to, and a description of the person with whom he or she left the Petition. The process server, however, would not (except in exceedingly rare circumstances) have personal knowledge that the address was the defendant/respondent’s “usual abode,” or the actual relationship (or lack thereof) of the person with whom the process server left the Petition.

Terrance’s Affidavits and other evidence showed he never lived at the Chase Avenue address and did not know William Delany. This evidence was not rebutted by the Department and Terrance overcame any presumption given to the statements made in the Certificate of Service.

Closing Points

A child support judgment is typically an incredibly durable judgment. Child support amounts due on a judgment are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding, and there is no time limit on when a party can try to collect past-due child support payments. All this presumes, however, that the court had personal jurisdiction over the respondent when it entered the judgment. If a court did not have personal jurisdiction over the respondent, even a child support judgment is subject to challenge.

The matters addressed in Hodges show how important it can be to work with a legal representative who truly understands family law procedures in your state and county. If you are dealing with a contested divorce or custody issue, our attorneys are available to discuss your case. Please contact our office to learn more.

Contact Our Illinois Divorce & Custody Law Firm Today

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