Serve your divorce papers

Once you file the first papers in your divorce or legal separation, you must notify your spouse (or domestic partner) by formally delivering copies of the paperwork. This is called serving papers

Before you start 

When you serve papers, it means that another adult, not you, hands your spouse a copy of the filed papers. This person is your server. Your server must complete a form and file it with the court to prove they delivered the papers. 

This is called personal service, but there are some situations where you need to use a different process. Common examples of these situations:

  • You don't know where your spouse is

  • Your spouse is in another country

In cases where you need to serve a different way, you may be able to get help from your court's Self-Help Center or an attorney.

Learn how to serve papers in special situations

You can have papers served by mail if your spouse will sign a form acknowledging they got the papers and mail the form back. This is called service by Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt.  If your spouse lives out of state, you could also have the papers sent by certified mail with return receipt requested. In either case, you cannot mail the papers yourself.

These mail options can be less reliable. Most people use personal service. 


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 For more help to understand service, watch a short video about how to serve. Then, follow the step-by-step instructions below.

How to personally serve divorce papers

  • 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. 

    If your spouse is in jail or in prison: An official at the jail or prison will be your server. Contact the jail, California State prison, or federal prison to find out who does this and how to get them the documents.

    If your spouse lives on a military base: There are different rules for serving someone on a US base or overseas. In some cases, their commanding officer may be able to serve the papers. In general, if you or your spouse is in the military, you may wish to speak to Self-Help Center staff or a lawyer as different rules apply.
  • Figure out when to serve

    You can't move your case forward until you serve the other person. Once they are served, they have 30 days to respond. After that, your case can move forward even if they don’t respond.

    If you filed a Request for Order with your Petition, you must serve all the papers at least 16 court days before the court date, unless the court ordered a different deadline. A court day means a day a court is open (Monday through Friday except court holidays).    

    If you have a court date for another reason, there may be a different deadline. 


    If after trying to find your spouse you still don't know where they live, you can ask a judge to let you serve by publication or posting. Then, you can move forward with your divorce.
  • Have your server give the papers to your spouse

    Illustration of giving papers to a server who then gives them to the other party

    Your server must find your spouse and hand them these forms: 

    • Copies of forms you filed with the court (except any fee waiver forms) 

    • Blank Response - Marriage/Domestic Partnership (form FL-120)   

    • Blank response forms if you filed other papers 

    Your server should note the address where they gave your spouse the papers, along with the date and time. The server needs this information to fill out a Proof of Service form.

    Your server can leave the papers next to them and tell them what they are. For example, your server can leave the papers on the ground next to them and say, "These are important legal papers for you." 


    Your server needs to try delivering the papers different days of the week and at different times. If your spouse is never there, your server may be able to try substituted service. There are different rules for this type of service.
    Learn about substituted service
  • Have your server complete the Proof of Service form

    You can use Proof of Service of Summons (form FL-115).

    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 sign the form.

  • Copy and file the Proof of Service form

    members fo the public waiting in line to talk to the clerk
    • Make a copy of your Proof of Service form.  

    • File the original and copy with the court where you filed the papers. The court will stamp and return the copy. 

    • Keep the copy of the Proof of Service form for your records.   

    If your spouse doesn’t file a response within 30 days of being served, you can ask the court for a default. This means asking the court to decide the case without your spouse’s input.
    See the process for a divorce by default

Once you've served the Petition and Summons, you've completed the first part of the process to get a divorce or legal separation.

Start a divorce case

What's next?

After you serve these papers, you'll wait for a response from your spouse. They have 30 days to respond. If they don't respond you can still move forward with the divorce or legal separation.


In the meantime, you'll need to complete information about your finances.

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