Resolving Your Small Claims Case in California - Chapter 4


Service of Process/Proof of Service

The plaintiff must make sure the defendant knows about the lawsuit. The correct way of notifying the defendant is called "service of process," which means giving the defendant a copy of the claim.

  • The plaintiff cannot give the defendant a copy of the claim; the plaintiff must arrange for someone else to do it.

  • Anyone who is over the age of 18 and who is not a party to the case, may serve a copy of the claim on the defendant.

  • The service of process must be done according to strict rules or else the case may be dismissed or delayed.

  • The person who serves the defendant must sign court paperwork showing when the defendant was served. This paper is called "proof of service."

The defendant must be served by a certain date and the proof of service must be returned to the court clerk by a certain date, as follows:

  • If the defendant lives in the county, service must be completed at least 15 days (25 days if by substitute service) before the trial date. The period is 20 (30 days if by substitute service) days if the defendant lives outside the county.

  • Proof of service must be filed with the court clerk at least five (5) days prior to the trial.

If these deadlines are not met, the trial may be postponed. There are three ways to serve process on (give a copy of the claim to) the defendant:

  1. Personal Service

  • A copy of the claim is delivered personally to the defendant by someone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case.

  • Private Process Servers - These agencies will provide service of process for a fee. For more information, consult your Yellow Pages or the Internet.

  • The person who serves the defendant must complete a "proof of service" form verifying that the defendant was properly served with a copy of the claim.

  1. Certified Mail

  • Service by certified mail must be done by the clerk of the court.

  • The clerk of the court where you filed your claim will send a copy of the claim by certified mail.

  • There is a fee for this service. Visit our Fees page to view the list of fees.

  • Important Note: If the named defendant does not sign the receipt for certified mail, the service of process is invalid.

  1. Substitute Service

  • This is a two-step process where someone other than the defendant personally receives a copy of the claim.

  • Step 1. The first copy must be delivered to someone over the age of 18 at the defendant's:

  1. residence - left with a competent member of the household

  2. place of business - left with a person apparently in charge of the office

  3. usual place of mailing other than a U.S. Postal Service Box

Step 2. A second copy must be mailed to the defendant at the same place where the first copy was delivered. The mailing must be by regular mail, not certified mail.

For more information, visit the California Courts Self-Help Center.