Serve your small claims forms

Once you file the forms to start your small claims case, you must tell the other side about the case by having someone deliver a copy of the filed forms. This is called service

Before you start

Service can be done in a few different ways. No matter which way, you can't serve the forms yourself. You must have someone who is 18 or older serve the forms for you (this is your server).

  • Hand the forms to the other side (personal service)

    This is how forms are usually served.

  • Hand the forms to someone at the other side's home or work (substituted service)

    The server can hand the forms to an adult at the other side's home, work, or where they usually get their mail. The server must also mail a copy of the forms to the other side.

  • Court clerk sends forms by certified mail (only offered in some courts) 

    Only the court can serve this way. The court charges a $15 fee to serve this way. This type of service often works well when you're serving a business's agent for service of process. For others, it often doesn't work.

Sometimes the person being served won’t pick up the certified mail, the judge can’t read their signature on the postal service form, or someone else signs for them. These are all reasons the judge would think the other side wasn’t served correctly. 

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. They have to be served in California.

    • Business or government

      If you're suing a business or government, there is a specific person you must serve, not just any employee. Find out who in How to Serve a Business or Public Entity (form SC-104C). They have to be served in California.

    • Landlord

      If you're suing your landlord you can serve them in California or out of state if they live there.

    • Out-of-state driver

      If you're suing about a car accident, and the owner or driver of the other car lives out of state, serve the driver, owner, and the Director of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

  • Choose a Server

    You can't serve the papers yourself. Ask another adult to serve them. This is your server.

    Your server must be:

    • 18 or older
    • Not part of your case

    Your server can be: 

    • Someone you know or a family member

    • The county sheriff (in some counties) 

      • The sheriff charges to serve papers unless you have a fee waiver. 

    • A professional process server you pay 

    • Someone you don't know who agrees to deliver the Claim and follow all the service laws


  • Figure out the deadline to serve

    Your server must deliver the forms at least 15 days before your court date, or 20 days before your court date if the person, business, or government you're serving is in a different county from where you filed your case. 

    Look at a calendar.

    • Find the court date the court clerk put on Page 1 of your Claim form. Start counting from that day back.
    • The day before the court date is day 1. The next day before it is day 2, etc.
    • Keep counting back until you get to 15 (or 20) days.
    • Check what day this is:  

      • If it’s Monday through Friday and not a holiday, court holiday or closure, you must have the forms delivered by the end of that day. 

      • If it’s a Saturday or Sunday, court holiday, or closure, count back to a day that court will be open. You must have the forms delivered by the end of that day.

    It's best to serve as early as you can. If you can't find the person you need to serve and have to try substitute service you have to do it 10 days before this deadline. You don't want to lose that option by waiting too long to serve.

    Talk to the court clerk or the Small Claims Advisor. Each local court has its own rules.


    You may have to ask the court to move your court date out by filing a Request to Postpone Trial (Small Claims) (form SC-150) 10 or more days before the court date. Then make a copy for everyone in your case and have a copy of this form served in person or by mail on all of them. More information on changing your court date.

  • Have your server deliver the forms

    Your server must find the person they need to serve and hand the filed forms to them before your deadline. As they hand the forms to the other side they need to:

    • Tell the person what the forms are about (something like “this is a small claims lawsuit”)  
    • Write down the address where they handed the person the forms
    • Write down the date and time they gave the other side the forms

    The server needs to keep track of this information to fill it in on the Proof of Service form in the next step.

    If the person you need to serve isn’t at home or work when your server comes to serve them, but there's someone 18 or older who is, your server may be able to do substituted service. The deadline to serve is earlier. Get instructions for substituted service.

  • Have the server fill out the Proof of Service form

    Use Proof of Service (form SC-104).

    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 you the Proof of Service form back to 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.

    • File the original and copy at least 5 days before your court hearing
    • The court will keep the original
    • The court will stamp and return the copy to you
    • Keep the copy for your records

Once you've served your Claim, you've completed the second step in the small claims process: start a small claims case.

Start a small claims case

What's next

After you serve your forms, you need to start to get ready for your court date (trial).

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