Service of Process

Important! The information here is general and may not apply to your case.

What Is Service?

 The law says that when you sue a person, partnership, corporation, or the government, you must give formal notice to the other side that you have started the legal process. In the same way, when you are already involved in a case and file papers with the court, you are required to give the other side notice of the paperwork you have filed. The legal way to give formal notice is to have the other side “served” with a copy of the paperwork that you have filed with the court. This is called “service of process.”

"Service of process" means that the other side must get copies of any paper you file with the court.  In “service of process” a third person (NOT you) is the one who actually delivers the paperwork to the other side.  The person who does this is called the “server” or “process server.”

Until the other side has been properly "served," the judge cannot make any permanent orders or judgments.

You can read about the specific rules regarding service at:

Process Servers

The “server” or “process server” can be: 

  • A friend or relative;
  • A coworker;
  • A county sheriff or marshal;
  • A professional process server; or 
  • Anyone over 18 who is NOT part of the case.

In all cases, the “server” or “process server” MUST: 

  • Be 18 years old or older;
  • Not be a party to the case;
  • Serve the paperwork on the other side in the time require;
  • Fill out a proof of service form that tells the court whom they served, when, where, and how; and 
  • Return the proof of service to you so you can file it with the court.

Remember, it is very important that you, if you are the plaintiff/petitioner or defendant/respondent, do NOT serve your own papers.

Note: If you hire a process server, give them a photo of the person they have to serve (if you have one) and a list of times and places when it will be easy to find that person. Look for a process server who is close to where the other side lives or works. Fees are often based on how far the server has to travel. So this will save you money. 

Types of service

There are several ways to serve papers. The information here about the types of service is general. Not all of them are allowed in all cases, or at all stages of a case. So, for your type of case, only some of these types of service may be allowed.   The individual sections on this Online Self-Help Center will tell you what types of service are allowed in your case. 

Service can be complicated and it is VERY important. If it is not done right, you will not be able to move forward with your case.  If you are not sure how you must serve your paperwork, ask your court’s self-help center, family law facilitator or small claims legal advisor, or or talk to a lawyer. Click for help finding a lawyer.

Personal Service
"Personal service" means that someone – NOT a party to the case – must personally delivery the court documents to the other side.

In “personal service”: 

  • The server gives the papers to the party being served. It can be at the party’s home, work, or anywhere on the street. 

  • The server has to identify the party being served and hand the legal papers to him or her and inform him or her that they are court papers.
    • If the party being served does not want to take the papers, they can be left on the ground in front of him or her.  If he or she takes the papers and tears them up or throws them away, service is still considered to be valid. The person being served does not have to sign anything.

  • The server then fills out a proof of service, detailing when, where, and how (in person) the papers were served. The server signs the proof of service and returns it to you to file in court.

  • Personal service is complete the day the papers are served.

“Personal service” is the most reliable type of service because the court knows for sure that the person being served got the papers and, if necessary, can question the process server about the “service.” 

Since it is the most reliable, “personal service” is valid in all types of case.  Also because it is so reliable, it is generally required when serving the first papers (the petition or complaint) in a case.

Service by Mail
In "service by mail," someone – NOT a party to the case – must mail the documents to the other party.

For “service by mail”:

  • The server mails the papers to the party being served. If the party being served is a person, the papers can be mailed to his or her home or mailing address. If it is a business, the papers must be mailed to the owner(s) at the business’s main office. If the business has an agent for service, the papers should be mailed to the agent for service.  Learn more about serving a business.

  • The server then fills out a Proof of Service, detailing to whom the papers were mailed, to what address, when, how (by first-class mail), and where they were mailed from. The server signs the Proof of Service and returns it to you to file in court.

  • Service by mail is complete 5 days after the papers are mailed.

Mail service is easy but not very reliable because the court cannot know for sure that someone received the paperwork.

Substituted Service
Substituted service is used after several attempts to personally serve the papers have failed.

For substituted service:

  • The server tries to personally serve the papers on the other party a number of times (usually 3 or more) but cannot find the party at home (or work, if that is the address the server has).  The server must try different days of the week and different times of the day, at times when the other person is likely to be home (or at work if serving him or her there).

  • If the server is unable to find the person to be served on each one of those times, he or she can, on the last attempt, leave the papers with someone at the other party’s house, at least 18 years old, who lives there.  If the server is trying to serve the papers at the other party’s work, then the papers can be left with someone at the office that appears to be in charge and is at least 18 years old. 

  • The server must tell the person that he or she hands the papers to that they are legal documents for the other party. The server must also write down the name and address of the person he or she gave the court papers to. If the person will not give his or her name, the server must write down a detailed physical description.

  • Next, the server must mail a copy of the papers to the other party at the address where the papers were left.

  • The server must then:
    1. Write up a “Declaration of Due Diligence,” which is document for the court detailing every attempt attempt he or she made to serve the papers in person. It should include the dates he or she went to the house or work, times of day, and what the result was (for example, “No one answered the door” or “Party not in the office”). The server has to sign this document under penalty of perjury.   There is no form for this, but the server can use a Declaration (Form MC-030). Your court’s self-help center may have a local form to help you with this step too.

    2. Fill out a Proof of Service, detailing when, where, and how the papers were served. The server has to make sure to write the name of the person he or she left the papers with (or a detailed physical description). The server signs the Proof of Service and returns it to you, with the Declaration of Due Diligence, to file in court.

  • Substituted service is complete10 days after the day the papers are mailed.  


NOTE:
Sometimes, like in small claims cases, you can use substituted service the first time the server tries to serve the papers in person and the other party is not at home or work. 

“Substituted service” is not a very reliable type of service because the court does not know for sure that the person that had to be served actually received the paperwork.

Service by Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt

When the other side agrees to be served by mail and is willing to sign a document for the court saying that they received the papers, you can usually use this method. It is usually used for the summons and complaint/petition (in civil cases or family law cases). 

To serve by Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt:

  • The server mails the summons and complaint to the other side with a 2 copies of the Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt.
  • The other side signs 1 copy of the Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt, telling the court that he or she received the papers in the mail, and returns it to the server.
  • The server then fills out a Proof of Service, detailing to whom the papers were mailed, to what address, when, how (byfirst-class  mail), and where they were mailed from. The server has to attach the Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt returned by the other side.  The server signs the Proof of Service and returns it to you to file in court.
  • Service by Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt is complete on the date the Acknowledgment of Receipt portion of the form is signed by the other side.

Service by posting on the premises and mailing (for eviction cases ONLY) 
In eviction (unlawful detainer) cases only, a summons and complaint can be served by posting on the premises at issue in the eviction and also mailing. Service by posting and mailing is used after several attempts to personally serve the papers have failed. A landlord needs the court's permission to serve his or her tenant by posting and mailing. 

For service by posting and mailing (sometimes called “nail and mail”):

  • The server tries to personally serve the papers on the other party a number of times (usually 3 or more) but cannot find the party at home.   The server must try different days of the week and different times of the day, at times when the other person is likely to be home.
  • If the server is unable to find the person to be served on each one of those times, AND the server is unable to find an adult on the premises to leave the papers with (to serve by substituted service, as explained above), then:

    1. Write up a “Declaration of Due Diligence,” which is a document for the court detailing every attempt the server made to serve the papers in person and by substituted service. It should include the dates he or she went to the house/property, times of day, and what the result was (for example, “No one answered the door”). The server has to sign this document under penalty of perjury. There is no form for this, but the server can use a Declaration (Form MC-030). Your court’s self-help center may have a local form to help you with this step too.
                                                                                          AND
    2. File an application to the court asking for permission to serve by "posting and mailing" pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 415.45.

  • If the court grants permission to serve by posting and mailing, the server must:
    1. Post the summons on the premises in a place where the other party (the tenant) is most likely to see it; and  
    2. Mail a copy of the papers to the tenant at the tenant's last known address, by certified mail.

  • Fill out a Proof of Service, detailing when, where and how the papers were served. The server signs the Proof of Service and returns it to you to file in court

  • Service by posting and mailing is complete 10 days after the day the papers are mailed.

 

Service by publication
“Service by publication” means that you publish the summons and complaint in a newspaper of general circulation in the area where the other side is likely to be. You have to ask the court’s permission to do this. It is usually used when you do not know how to find the other side and do not have an address or workplace for him or her. 

Note: If you need to serve a divorce, legal separation or annulment summons and petition or a petition for custody and support of minor children on your ex-spouse or partner, and you do not know where he or she is, there is a special process. Click to find out how to serve a spouse by publication when you do not know your spouse's or partner's whereabouts.

Before the court will give you permission to serve by publication, you will have to prove to the court that you tried as hard as possible to find the other side. Every court is slightly different in what they require, but most require at least that you try to find the other side at his or her last known address or last known work, mail letters to the last known address with forwarding address requested, call the other side’s friends and family or ex-coworkers to ask about his or her whereabouts, look for the other side in the phone book for any city where he or she is likely to be, and search on the Internet. To find out exactly what your court requires you to do before you can ask for permission to do service by publication, read your court’s local rules or ask your court clerk or self-help center.

Once you have taken all the steps your court requires before asking to serve by publication:

  • Write up a “Declaration of Due Diligence,” which is a document where you tell the court every attempt you made to find the other side. Include as much detail as possible. For example, if you called friends and family, write down the dates and what they told you. If you mailed a letter to the last known address, explain when you sent it, what address you sent it to, and what the result was. You have to sign this document under penalty of perjury.  There is no form for this, but you can use a Declaration (Form MC-030). Your court’s self-help center may have a local form to help you with this step too.
  • Complete an ex parte request for the court order allowing you to serve by publication. You must also attach a proposed order. Again, ask your court’s self-help center if they have a local form for this.
  • If the court grants your request to serve by publication, the judge will sign your proposed order, and allow you to publish your court document in a newspaper of general circulation in the area. 
    • You can make these arrangements with the newspaper.  Court clerks usually have a list of newspapers that the court accepts for this purpose. You will have to publish it for 4 weeks in a row, at least once a week.
    • The newspaper must give you an affidavit showing the time and place the document was published.
  • Service by publication is complete at the end of the 28th day after the first date the summons and complaint are published in the newspaper.


Service by posting (at the courthouse)
“Service by posting” means that the court clerk posts the summons and complaint in a visible place designated for court notices at the courthouse. Like “service by publication,” you have to ask the court’s permission to do this. It is usually used when you do not know how to find the other side and do not have an address or workplace for him or her. BUT in order to qualify for “service by posting” and do away with the requirement to publish your summons and complaint in a newspaper, you usually have to qualify for a fee waiver.

Note: If you need to serve a divorce, legal separation or annulment summons and petition or a petition for custody and support of minor children on your ex-spouse or partner, and you do not know where he or she is, there is a special process. Click to find out how to serve a spouse by posting when you do not know your spouse's or partner's whereabouts.

Before the court will give you permission to serve by posting, you will have to prove to the court that you tried as hard as possible to find the other side. Every court is slightly different in what they require, but most require at least that you try to find the other side at his or her last known address or last known work, mail letters to the last known address with forwarding address requested, call the other side’s friends and family or ex-coworkers to ask about his or her whereabouts, look for the other party in the phone book for any city where he or she is likely to be, and search on the Internet. To find out exactly what your court requires you to do before you can ask for permission to do service by publication, read your court’s local rules or ask your court clerk or self-help center.

Once you have taken all the steps your court requires before asking to serve by posting:

  • Fill out and file a request for a fee waiver, asking to be allowed to serve by posting.  Find out how to ask for a fee waiver.

  • Write up a “Declaration of Due Diligence,” which is a document where you tell the court every attempt you made to find the other side. Include as much detail as possible. For example, if you called friends and family, write down the dates and what they told you. If you mailed a letter to the last known address, explain when you sent it, what address you sent it to, and what the result was. You have to sign this document under penalty of perjury. There is no form for this, but you can use a Declaration (form MC-030). Your court’s self-help center may have a local form to help you with this step too.

  • Complete an ex-parte request for the court order allowing you to serve by posting. You must also attach a proposed order. Again, ask your court’s self-help center if they have a local form for this.

    • If the court grants your fee waiver and your request to serve by posting at the courthouse, the judge will sign your proposed order and allow you to have your summons and complaint posted at the courthouse. 

  • Service by posting is complete at the end of the 30th day after the first date the summons and complaint are posted.

Service by certified mail (small claims ONLY)
Only the small claims court clerk can serve your claim this way. The clerk will charge you a fee of $10 to serve the defendant by certified mail. You should check back with the court before the hearing to see if the receipt for certified mail was returned to the court. Service by certified mail is complete on the day the certified mail receipt is signed.

Service by certified mail (for a party that is out of state)
When the party that has to be served lives out of state, papers can usually be served by sending a copy of the paperwork to be served to that party by first-class mail, postage prepaid, and return receipt requested. The person who mails the papers must be at least 18 and NOT a party to the case. The server must complete a Proof of Service indicating how the papers were served. Service by certified mail is complete on the 10th day after mailing of the papers.

Do NOT use this type of service to serve a party that is outside the United States. The process for serving someone outside the U.S. is very complicated. Talk to your court’s self-help center or a lawyer for help. Click for help finding a lawyer.

Who to Serve
 

  • If you are suing an individual, serve the person you are suing. If you are suing more than 1 individual, serve each person you are suing.
  • If you are suing a single-owner business (called a “sole proprietorship”), serve the owner.
  • If you are suing a partnership under its business name, serve 1 of the partners. If you are suing a business AND its partners, serve each partner. If you are suing a limited partnership, serve the general partner, general manager, or the agent for service (if there is one).
  • If you are suing a corporation, serve an officer of the corporation or the agent for service. You can find out the name of the corporation's agent for service at the website of the California Secretary of State.
  • If you are suing a city, serve the city clerk or agent authorized to accept service. You can find the address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book.
  • If you are suing a county, serve the county clerk or agent authorized to accept service. Check your county's website for the county clerk's address and telephone number. Or find the address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book.
  • If you are suing the State of California, you can serve the state Attorney General’s office if you are suing the California Highway Patrol or most consumer affairs boards. If you are suing Caltrans, you must serve the California Department of Transportation. Click for the Caltrans Headquarters’ address. Click for the mailing address of the Office of the Attorney General. You can also call the Attorney General's office at 1-800-952-5225 for more information.
  • If you are suing your landlord, serve the owner of the building where you live. Your landlord’s name, address, and phone number should be on your lease or posted on 2 conspicuous places on the property. You can also get the address from your local tax assessor's office. If you are suing your landlord and the manager of your apartment building will not tell you where the landlord lives, you can serve the manager.

Filling Out and Filing the Proof of Service
The court must know that the other side was properly served. To do this, the process server must carefully fill out and sign the Proof of Service detailing how service was done, on whom, where, and when. The process server then gives you the Proof of Service.

Make a copy of the Proof of Service. Take the original and copy to your court clerk right away to file it. The clerk will stamp the copy “Filed” and return it to you.

Keep this copy in a safe place.

Finding Someone in Order to Serve Him or Her

When you sue a person, you file your lawsuit against that person, using his or her legal name and any aliases. You also need that person’s address. Often, it is easy to get this information if you do not already have it, by looking at any documentation you may have about the legal dispute. But, sometimes, this information is not easily available to you. Below are some ways to track someone down.

  1. Send a letter to the person’s last address.  Under your return address, write “Return Service Requested. Do Not Forward.” If the person filed an address change with the post office, you will get the letter back with a new address. Get more information from the United States Postal Service.

  2. Go to the local post office covering the area for the person’s last known address. Ask if the person left a forwarding address.

  3. Call "411" for the city or cities where you think the person may live or work.  If the person is listed, you may be able to get his or her address. Or you may only get the phone number, but you can use the phone number to try other things to get the address.
  4. Search free online telephone directories. You can do an Internet search to try to locate the person. Some Internet searches are free, and if the person is listed, you can get the phone number or address.

  5. Search online on sites that search for people. You may be able to pay a small fee to an Internet company to give you the address or phone number of the person you are looking for. In that case, the more details you have about the person you are searching for (like date of birth or approximate age), the more accurate the results you may get.

  6. Search social networking sites. You can search popular social network sites where people often list their name, location, and perhaps other information you can find helpful. Or, you may be able to email them through the social network site if you think they may cooperate with you and give you information so you can serve them with legal papers

  7. Use a reverse telephone directory. If you only know the person’s phone number, you can get the address from a reverse telephone directory, which allows you to search by a telephone number to get the name and address of that telephone number’s subscriber. BUT the address and name will not be in the reverse directory if the phone number is unlisted.

    • You can also use a reverse phone directory online. There are several of these. Just search for “reverse phone directory.”

    • You can also look at a reverse telephone directory at the main branch of your public library.

  8. If you know any of the person’s relatives or friends, contact them for information. Call, write, or e-mail them and ask them if they have any contact information for him or her. They may not have all the information but even if they only know what city he or she may have moved to, the information can be helpful to you. You can also explain to them why you need to find this person and even if they do not want to give you the person’s contact information, they may be willing to contact him or her on your behalf and give him or her your contact information so he or she can get in touch with you and find out what you want. For some cases, like, for example, a divorce, the other person may also want to be divorced so it would be to his or her advantage to give you a way to get in touch with them.

  9. If you know any of the person’s past employers, contact them for information. Ask the last known employer (or even employers before that) if they have any information about the person’s whereabouts, even if it is just a city where he or she may have moved, or the name and address of the new employer.

  10. If the person you are trying to find owns property, search property records. 
     

    • The county tax assessor's office can search the tax rolls for you. The tax rolls in the assessor’s office list the names and addresses of property owners in the county by both owner name and address of the property. The tax assessor's address and phone number is also listed in the government pages of your phone book. It is usually in the county section under ASSESSOR.

    • You can also get this information from the county registrar/recorder's office. The property owners are listed by name, and each listing includes the location of the property owned. The address and phone number of your county registrar/recorder’s office is also listed in the government pages of your phone book. It is usually in the county section under RECORDER.

  11. If you have any reason to think the person may be in prison or jail, follow these steps:

    • For Federal Prison: Click for the Federal Bureau of Prison's Inmate Locator database. You can search the database using the inmate's first and last name or the inmate's Register Number, DCDC Number, FBI Number, or INS Number.  Find a list of federal correctional facilities at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Fill in whatever information you know (like the state or city you are looking for) and hit “submit.”

    • For County Jail: Call the jail. You can usually find the phone number and address for the jail by calling the county sheriff. Find the contact information for the county sheriffs in California.

      If you do not know if a person is in state or federal prison or county  jail, search for the person in state and federal prison and the  counties where you think the person might be incarcerated.

Be creative!!!
You do not need to know where someone lives or works in order to serve him or her with legal papers. You only need to find the person to give him or her your legal papers through a server. The more you know about someone and his or her habits or the places he or she frequents, the easier it will be to figure out a good way to serve him or her with legal papers. So even if you do not know someone’s address but you know that at a given time he or she generally goes to a certain coffee shop, or to the gym, or to some other fixed place, you can have a server there to give him or her legal papers. You may also make a plan to meet the person somewhere and then have a server with you to give him or her the paperwork when you meet up. You can also hire a private investigator to help you find someone.

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