Serve the Defendant

Once you file your lawsuit, you must formally let the defendant know you're suing them. You do this by having someone deliver a copy of the filed forms to them. This is called service

Serving court papers

Serving means that another adult (called a server) delivers a copy of the filed papers to the defendant. Generally, this is done by hand-delivering the papers to the defendant. The defendant doesn't need to sign or do anything. The server just leaves the papers with them. This is called personal service

Yes, but it often doesn't work. You can use a process where the server mails the defendant the papers along with a Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt (form POS-015). Then, the defendant must sign form POS-015 and mail it back to the server so the server can file it with the completed Proof of Service of Summons. Because the defendant must sign and mail a form back, this type of service often doesn't work. So, most people do personal service.

If a defendant is out of state, your server can mail the papers by certified mail with return receipt requested. But, again, the defendant would need to sign the return receipt.

You have 60 days from when you filed the lawsuit to have the papers served and to file proof with the court it was done. The court can give you more time to serve the defendant, but you need to be actively trying to have the papers served. If your server has tried many ways to find the person, but cannot, talk to a lawyer or your court's Self-Help Center. They can explain if you may be able to serve another way. 

How to serve papers in person

  • Figure out who to serve

    • Person

      If you're suing a person (or people)—not a business or government—serve each person you are suing. 

    • Business that isn't incorporated

      If you're suing a business that is not incorporated, like a sole proprietorship or a general partnership, serve the owner or one of the partners.

    • Corporation, limited liability company or partnership

      Serve the company's agent for service of process. All corporations or limited liability companies that do business in California must list an agent for service of process with the Secretary of StateFor a corporation, service is also effective by serving an officer or the general manager.

    • Government

      When serving local government agencies, serve the clerk, secretary, or other head of the agency. If the "State of California" is the defendant, serve the Attorney General's Office.

  • Choose a Server

    You can't serve papers yourself. Ask another adult – a server – to deliver the papers.   

    Your server must be: 

    • 18 or over, and 

    • Not part of your case 

    Your server can be: 

    • Someone you know 

    • The county sheriff (in most, not all, counties) 

    • A professional process server you hire 

    The sheriff charges to serve papers unless you have a fee waiver. A process server will also charge to serve papers.


  • Have your server deliver the forms

    Your server must find the person they need to serve and hand the filed forms to them. As they hand the forms to the other side they need to tell them what the forms are about (something like “these are court papers”). If the defendant doesn't take the papers, the server can leave them right next to them.  

    The server needs to write down the date, time, and address where they handed the person the forms. The server needs this information to fill it in on the Proof of Service form in the next step.

    Your server needs to try to deliver the papers on different days of the week and at different times of the day. If they've done this, and another adult is there, they may be able to do "substituted service." This means hand the papers to the other adult that is there and then mail a second copy to that address. There are different rules for this type of service. Get instructions for substituted service.

  • Have the server fill out the Proof of Service form

    The server needs to fill out a Proof of Service for each defendant they served. Use Proof of Service of Summons (form POS-010). 

    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 forms. Your server must sign the Proof of Service form.

    The server should then give the Proof of Service form back to you (unless they do the step 5 for you).

  • Copy and file the Proof of Service

    a member of the public showing documents to a court clerk

    Make one copy of your filled-out Proof of Service form. Give the original and copy to the court clerk. The court will keep the original and return the copy to you. Keep the copy for your records.

Sue someone in civil court

What's next?

After you serve your forms, the other side has time to respond. Your next steps depend on what they do. They might not respond by the deadline, they may reach out to try to reach an agreement, or they might file a response.

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