Serving Papers for Small Claims Court
Updated: Oct 29
After filing the claim, you must notify the person, people, or business you're suing by formally delivering copies of the papers you filed in court. This lets them know that a case was filed, what it is about, and what they can do to respond. This is called serving notice or serving papers. The papers are served to the “service target.”
The primary way this is done is called personal service. This means another adult—not you—hands the service target a copy of the filed papers. The person delivering the papers is your server. Your server must sign a form saying they served the papers. You file this form with the court.
Step 1: Figure out who to serve
Is it a person, business or government entity, or out-of-state driver?
Person: If you're suing a person (or people)—not a business or government—serve each person you are suing.
Business or government: If you're suing a business or government, there is a specific person you must serve, not just any employee. Reach out to your court self-help center for specific guidelines to make sure you are serving the right person.
Out-of-state driver: If you're suing for a car accident, and the owner or driver of the other car lives in another state, you must also serve the Director of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Step 2: Choose a server
You can't serve papers yourself. Ask another adult to deliver the papers. This is your server.
Your server must be at least 18 years old and not part of your case. Your server can be someone you know or you can hire a professional process server. In some counties, the sheriff or court clerk will serve court papers, usually for a fee. To learn more about these options, contact the court or county sheriff's office.
Step 3: Identify the deadline to serve
Your server must deliver the papers at least 15 days before your court date (or 20 days, if the person, business, or entity you're serving is outside the county). Check with your court for exact time frames.
Step 4: Have your server deliver the papers.
Your server must find the person and hand the papers to them by the deadline. Your server should note the address where they gave them the papers, along with the date and time.
They need this information to fill out the proof of service form.
(If the target is not at home or at work when your server delivers the papers, your server can give the papers to another adult who is there. Your server then mails a copy of the papers. This is called “substituted service.” There is a different deadline for this type of service and a few more rules.)
Step 5: Fill out the proof of service form
You must use the proof of service form (in California, it is Form SC-104). Your server must sign the form. It helps if you fill in the top part of the form with the case and court information. Your server can then fill in the information about how, when, and where they served the papers. Your server must then sign the form.
Step 6: Copy and file proof of service
Make a copy of your proof of service form. File the proof of service at least 5 days before your hearing. The court will stamp and return the copies. Keep a copy of the proof of service forms for your records.
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