Serve Your Claim

"Service" is when someone-NOT you or anyone else listed in this case-gives a copy of your court papers to the person, business, or public entity, you are suing. Service lets the other side know:
  • What you are asking for;
  • When and where the trial will be; and
  • What they can do.

 

"Service" is VERY important and can be confusing. Read the Service of Process section to learn more about serving court papers. You can also ask your small claims legal advisor for help with service.

There are also 2 court forms that can help you understand service in your small claims case and make sure you follow the right steps.  Read:

  • What is Proof of Service? (Small Claims) (Form SC-104B); and
  • How to Serve a Business or Public Entity (Small Claims) (Form SC-104C).

To make sure you serve your papers right, read each topic below for more information. 


Serve Your Papers Before the Deadline

The deadline you have to serve your Plaintiff's Claim (Form SC-100) depends on HOW you serve the claim:

  • For personal service: Serve your claim at least 15 days before the court date (or 20 days if the person, business, or public entity you are serving is outside the county).
  • For substituted service: Serve your claim at least 25 days before your court date (or 30 days if the person, business, or public entity you are serving is outside the county). If the person, business, or public entity you have to serve is outside California or if you are serving a different form, ask the small claims legal advisor for more information.

 

If you miss your deadline
If you were not able to serve your Plaintiff's Claim (Form SC-100) before the deadline for service, talk to the court clerk or the small claims legal advisor. Each local superior court has its own rules.

If you already served your claim on some parties but not everyone you are suing, you may need to fill out and file a Request to Postpone Trial (Small Claims) (Form SC-150) at least 10 days before the trial date (or explain why you could not meet the 10-day deadline). Then have a copy of this form served in person or by mail on all other plaintiffs and defendants listed on your court papers. Click for more information on changing your court date.

If the judge agrees to postpone your court date, you will get a new court date to give you time to serve everyone properly with your Planitiff's Claim.

Serve Your Claim in the Proper Legal Way

The server must be at least 18 and not listed in the case. He or she can be:

  • A friend, relative, or co-worker.
  • A "process server," who is someone you pay to deliver court forms. Look in the Yellow Pages under "Process Serving." 
  • The local sheriff (or marshal if your county has one) can also deliver court forms. Look for your local sheriff online or ask the court clerk how to contact the sheriff. Or look in the county section of your phone book under "Sheriff." You must pay the sheriff, unless you qualify for a fee waiver.

 

There are 3 different ways to serve someone in a small claims case:

  1. Personal Service
  2. Substituted Service 
  3. Service by Certified Mail by the Court Clerk


Personal Service
Ask your server to personally "serve" (give) a copy of your court papers to the person you are suing or to the agent legally authorized to accept court papers for the person, business, or public entity you are suing.

Tell the server to:

  • Walk up to the person to be served.
  • Say, "These are court papers."
  • Give the person copies of all the court papers. If the person will not take the papers, just leave them near the person. It does not matter if the person tears them up or throws them away. 
  • Fill out the Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104), sign it on page 2, and return the compted form to you so that you can file it.

Substituted Service
If the person you have to serve is not at home or work when your server goes there, your server can give the court papers to:

  • A competent adult (at least 18) living at the home with the person to be served; or
  • An adult who seems to be in charge where the person to be served usually works; or
  • An adult who seems to be in charge where the person receives mail

Your server also has to:

  • Tell the person he or she is leaving the court papers with to give them to the person you are suing.
  • Write down the name of the person he or she gave the court papers to. If the person will not give his or her name, your server must write down a physical description of the person who took the papers.
  • Mail another copy of the court papers by first-class mail to the person you are suing at the same address where your server left the papers.
  • Fill out the Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104), and sign it on page 2. The server MUST also fill out and sign the Proof of Mailing (Substituted Service) (Form SC-104A) for the second step of mailing a copy of the Plaintiff's Claim. Once the server fills out both forms, he or she must return the completed forms to you so you can file them with the clerk.

Service by Certified Mail by the Court Clerk
You can pay the court clerk to mail your claim to the person you are suing by certified mail. This can be very convenient and the fee is low.

But this type of service can also be very unreliable. The court will probably not accept it and will make you serve again (with personal or substituted service) if:

  • The person you are suing or the person's agent for service does not sign the certified mail receipt with his or her complete name;
  • The judge cannot read the signature on the certified mail receipt and cannot tell who signed it; or
  • Someone else signs the receipt.

Serve the Right Person

If you are suing a person (or people)--not a business or public entity--serve each person you are suing. For example, if you were in a car accident and you are suing the owner and the driver of the car, you must serve both people.

If you are suing a business or public entity, click on a topic below:


If you are suing a partnership:

  • If you are just suing the business (and you have not listed the partners separately), serve 1 of the partners.
  • If you are suing a business and the partners, serve each partner.
  • If you are suing a limited partnership, serve the general partner or general manager.
  • If the business has an agent for service, you can serve the agent.

 

If you are suing a corporation:

  • Serve an officer of the corporation or their agent for service.
  • You can find out the name of the corporation's agent for service at the website of the California Secretary of State.
  • The website can also tell you how to write to the Secretary of State to get more information about the corporation, such as a list of the corporation's officers.

 

If you are suing your landlord:

  • Serve the owner of the property you are renting.
  • Your landlord's name, address, and phone number should be on your lease or posted on 2 conspicuous places on the property.
  • If the landlord has not provided this information, you can serve him or her by sending a copy of the Plaintiff's Claim by registered or certified mail to the address at which rent is paid.
  • You can also get the address from your local tax assessor's office.
  • If the lease has the manager's name and address, and the manager will not give you the address of the owner, you can serve the manager.

 

If you are suing the county:

  • Serve the county clerk or agent authorized to accept service.
  • Check your county's website for the clerk's address and telephone number.
  • Or find the address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book.

 

If you are suing the city:

  • Serve the city clerk or agent authorized to accept service.
  • Find the address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book. This information is usually listed in the city section, under CLERK.

 

If you are suing the state:

 

If you are suing the federal government:

  • You CANNOT sue the federal government in small claims court.

 

If you are suing someone who is NOT in California:

You must serve the defendant in California unless:

  • You are suing about property located in California, and the owner does not live in California; or
  • You had a car accident in California, and the owner or driver of the other car does not live in California.

If neither of these exceptions apply to your case, you cannot sue this defendant in small claims court. You would have to sue him or her in a limited civil case (cases for $25,000 or less).

Ask the small claims legal advisor for help on how to serve someone outside California.

File Your Proof of Service With the Court

Once you have served the defendant with a copy of your claim, your server has to fill out a Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104) for each person, business, or public entity served. The Proof of Service tells the court who was served, and when, where and how they were served.  If any of the defendants were served by substituted service, your server MUST also fill out a Proof of Mailing (Substituted Service) (Form SC-104A) for the second step of mailing a copy of the Plaintiff's Claim.

When the server fills out and signs the Proof of Service, you must file it with the court at least 5 days before your court date.

If you do not have a Proof of Service for each person served, or if the Proof of Service is not filled out correctly, the judge may not be able to hear your case.  Have the small claims legal advisor look over the Proof of Service to make sure it was filled out correctly.

After you serve the defendant and file your Proof of Service with the court, you should get ready for Going to Court.

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