Snowbird Law: Surprised With A Lawsuit While Out Of State

Did you migrate south to Florida for the winter? Did you forward your mail, pause your newspaper subscription, set your bills to auto-pay and pack your bags?

Did you consider that while your toes are stuck in the sand, you might be stuck with a lawsuit?

Leaving your home state for a sunny destination might put a pause on the winter doldrums, but it will not pause legal action initiated against you. A little bit of careful planning will alleviate the possibility that you could be sued without knowing it.

Understanding Service of Process

Service of process is a legal phrase referring to the act of providing someone with notice that they have been sued. Anyone filing a lawsuit must “serve” each of the defendants, which usually means sending a process server to hand-deliver a Summons and Complaint. Every state has laws that govern service of process, and these laws include guidance for service on someone who may be out-of-state.

Both Minnesota and Florida provide for service by “publication” when a defendant is evading service of a lawsuit or cannot otherwise be found. Publication is accomplished by posting notice in a qualified newspaper for a consecutive number of weeks (generally three weeks in Minnesota and four in Florida). Florida’s rules for service by publication are particularly robust because they take into account the high rate of out-of-state residents who own property, vehicles and businesses in the Sunshine State. Snowbirds who own property in more than one state are sometimes surprised to learn that they are not limited to being sued in their domicile (or home state).

Avoiding Surprises

Few people expect to be sued, let alone while at the beach. But if it happens, you have a limited period of time in which to respond to a lawsuit. If you miss the deadline, you may return home to find that a default judgment has been entered against you for failure to respond. In order to avoid this unpleasant homecoming scenario, consider the following basic precautions:

  1. Forward your mail: Both Florida and Minnesota laws provide for mailing a copy of a lawsuit to the defendants when they are served by publication. Forwarding your mail while you are away means that you’ll know what is happening in your absence;
  2. Ask someone to check on your house: Even if you don’t need a neighbor to stop by to water your plants (or to remove snow), ask them to check on your house every couple of days while you are gone. If a process server attempts to serve you at home, they’ll leave a note on the door with their contact information; and
  3. Confirm your mailing address with taxing authorities: You pay taxes where each of your properties are located, but have you confirmed your mailing address? This is not necessarily the same as the property address, and keeping these records updated will ensure that you receive notice where you get your mail.

In the event that you are sued while out of town, don’t panic. Instead, contact a lawyer in the state in which the lawsuit was commenced, and they can get to work on your defense until you return. Go ahead and stick your toes in the sand… just make sure your head doesn’t follow.

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