Step 3: 'Serve' Your Court Forms
(Give the Other Side Copies of Your Forms)

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California law requires that the defendant in your case be given formal notice that you have filed a claim against him or her in small claims court. This is called "service of process," Opens new window and it is very important.  In fact, the judge cannot make any decisions until the other person or business has been “properly served."  Service lets the other party know:

  • Who is suing them, 
  • Why you are suing them, 
  • What you are asking for, 
  • When and where the trial will be, and 
  • What they can do.

To view a short video called “Service of Process”, click here. Opens new window

WHO can serve the court papers?

You can NOT serve the court papers yourself.  Someone 18 or older (for example a friend, relative, the Sheriff or Marshal, or a professional process server) who is not involved in the case in any way must serve the court forms for you.

For more information about who can serve court papers, click here.

HOW are court forms served?

There are 3 ways that copies of your Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100) filed with the court can be "served". These are:

  • Personal service. (A person 18 or older who is not involved in this case takes copies of the forms and delivers them to the defendant him- or herself.)
  • Substituted service. (A person18 or older who is not involved in this case leaves copies of the forms at the place where the defendant lives or works. Then, the server mails another copy of the forms to the defendant at the same address where he or she left the papers.)
  •  Service by the court clerk using certified mail. (For a fee, a court clerk will mail the forms to the defendant by certified mail. Usually, the post office will attempt to deliver the envelope 2 times. If the claim is returned to the court clerk undelivered, you will then have to do either personal service or substituted service.)

For more information about how service is done, click here.

WHAT Needs to Be Served?

The defendant must be served a copy of ALL of the forms filed with the court. This always will include at least:

  • Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court/Information for the Defendant (Small Claims) (Form SC-100) Opens new window
    See the instructions Opens new window for this form.

NOTE: Do not serve fee waiver forms. These forms are only for the court.

WHO has to be served?

You must have the defendant served. If there is more than one defendant, you must have each person (even if they live together) or business partner (even if they share the same office) served separately.

NOTE: There are special service rules for some defendants. Click one of the following links to learn what to do if you are suing:

NOTE: If the person, business, or public entity you have to serve is outside California, you may not be able to serve them at all. Ask your Small Claims Advisor for more information.

WHEN must you have the claim served?

It depends on how you have your claim served.

  • For personal service: Have your claim served at least 15 days before the court date (or 20 days if the person, business, or public entity you're having served is located outside the county).
  • For substituted service: Have your claim served at least 25 days before your court date (or 30 days if the person, business, or public entity you're serving is located outside the county).

After the papers have been served:

The person who serves the court forms must fill out a:

  • Proof of Service (Form SC-104) Opens new window

For substituted service, look for all sections dealing with this and fill them in.

Once this is finished, he or she will give you the form.  Make a copy of the Proof of Service form and mail or take the original form(s), plus the copies, to the court clerk. The clerk will file and stamp all of the forms. The court will keep the original of each form, and will give the copies of these forms back to you.

ALERT!  Your case will be delayed if you do not properly serve the defendant, or if you do not file the "Proof of Service" with the court.

To learn how to file your “Proof of Service” with the court, click here.


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