How to Serve Court Papers in California: A Complete Legal Guide

May 10, 2024

To maintain fairness and equity in the legal system, it’s necessary to inform all the parties involved in a case when a lawsuit is filed against them or when they need to respond to a court order. These notices are sent through certain court papers delivered through a legal procedure known as service of process. In California, incorrect service of process may invalidate the service, deny you access to important evidence, and affect the outcome of the case. That’s why it’s important to understand how to serve court papers the right way to avoid legal consequences.

On-Call Legal has the most reliable nationwide process servers in California. We’re always available to help you make sure your subpoena services and other kinds of legal papers are delivered to anywhere in the country. Schedule a free consultation with us today to discuss your process service. Let us guide you throughout the process!

This article will cover the necessary steps and legal procedures for serving court papers in California and the legal consequences that come with the improper service of papers.

Understanding Service of Process

Understanding Service of Process

Service of process, also known as process service, is a legal procedure through which an individual or entity gets notified about a legal action or lawsuit against them. It involves serving court orders or documents such as summons, subpoenas, complaints, writs, etc.

Process service is an important part of legal proceedings as it helps prevent unfair rulings or judgments. It helps to make sure that defendants are properly informed and have the opportunity to respond or defend themselves in court. Otherwise, people might become victims of a court ruling without even being aware that a case is filed against them or that they need to participate in a legal proceeding.

Additionally, service of process minimizes delays in legal processes. When all the parties involved in a case are duly aware of their obligations, they can prepare accordingly. This makes the whole legal process smoother and faster.

Examples of court documents that require service of process include:

  1. Summons
  2. Subpoenas
  3. Complaints
  4. Notice of hearing
  5. Writ of garnishment or execution
  6. Divorce papers
  7. Restraining orders and protective orders

How to Serve Someone Court Papers in California

How to Serve Someone Court Papers in California

The California Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) has set out certain rules and procedures regarding how you should serve court papers, who can serve the papers, and the timeline for service.

According to the CCP, entities with the legal authority to issue court papers (such as subpoenas) include a small claims court clerk, attorneys of record, and in some cases, administrative agencies authorized by specific court orders or statutes.

Regarding who can serve court documents, anyone who is up to 18 years old and is not a party to the case can serve legal papers. This may include professional process servers, friends or relatives, county sheriffs or marshals, or even colleagues. To make sure the papers are served correctly, the best option is to hire a professional process server.

Note that specific legal papers, such as subpoenas to produce sensitive records, may require that you follow certain specific requirements. Hence, always seek the guidance of an attorney or legal professional to avoid mistakes.

Regarding how to serve court documents, you can serve papers via personal service, substituted service, or service by certified mail. Personal service is the most common method where a server hands the papers in person to the party being served. It is also called in-person service or personal delivery. Personal service is often preferred as it provides immediate proof of service.

However, if several attempts to personally serve your papers fail, you can opt for substituted service. Here, the server can leave the papers with a responsible individual at the recipient’s home or usual business. The server will then mail a copy of the papers to the recipient. Substituted service is a suitable alternative for serving a subpoena duces tecum that requires the recipient to produce a document.

For service by mail, you’ll be required to submit a return receipt requested as proof of service. You can obtain this proof of service when you use certified or registered mail. You can also serve a subpoena by first-class mail if the recipient agrees to acknowledge receipt of the subpoena. The recipient must sign a form provided by the sender acknowledging that they have received the subpoena. The requirements and legal approval vary across jurisdictions. Hence, you should confirm that service by mail is acceptable before you use it.

Court Papers and Preparation

Typically, there are several kinds of court papers that a professional process server delivers. They include subpoenas, summons, legal complaints, writs, protective orders and restraining orders, divorce decrees and child custody orders, and other court notices. Hence it’s important you identify the kind of document suitable for your purpose, prepare them on time, and make sure they align with the regulations guiding their validity and service.

Summons are served to inform the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed, demanding that they respond to the claim within a given time. Complaints, on the other hand, are documents that spell out a plaintiff’s claim against the defendant and the relief sought. Subpoenas are used to compel an individual to testify before a judge in court or submit documents relevant to the case. Furthermore, you can serve protective orders if you seek to protect an individual from harassment or harm while restraining orders restrict contact between two people.

Note that most of these papers usually have a specific time frame within which they must be served. The length of this period depends on the type of case, the provisions of the law, and court rules. Therefore, it’s important to find out the stipulated timeframe for each type of document and adhere accordingly.

Choosing the Method of Service

Choosing the Method of Service

Before choosing your preferred method of service, you should consider their specific pros and cons and other factors such as the recipient and the location where the recipient lives.

For instance, personal service is considered reliable and valid for all kinds of cases and is mostly used when serving first papers, such as complaints or petitions in a case. But although it’s the most used and reliable type of service, it has some disadvantages. For instance, locating the recipient can be challenging sometimes, especially when they’re trying to avoid service. If such a scenario occurs, your server can leave the paper with someone at the recipient’s home or office. This is also known as substitute service. However, the server must follow strict rules in identifying a responsible person and mailing a copy to the originally intended recipient.

Service by mail and electronic service are more convenient and relatively cheaper methods of service, especially if the recipient lives out of state. It allows you to easily track the delivery. However, you must get the recipient to sign an acknowledgment return receipt of the court papers served and send it back to you. Additionally, getting the certified mail receipt can be unreliable sometimes. Also, some jurisdictions do not permit service by registered mail.

Additionally, court papers are not only served to individuals; you can also serve a single-owner business, an officer of a business, or the government. In California, it’s advisable to serve the owners of the business or anyone in charge and deliver the document within normal business hours. If the case is between you and a partnership business, serve one of the partners. You can only serve each partner if you’re suing both the business and its partners.

If it’s a limited partnership, corporation, or limited liability company, serve the papers to an officer of the corporation or the service agent authorized to receive them. For government agencies like the California state government, you serve the attorney general’s office. You can serve the county clerk if it’s a county agency, or the city clerk if it’s a city agency. If the recipient who is to be served lives out of state, your server must comply with the laws of that state to successfully serve the papers.

Executing Service of Process

Getting a server to deliver your papers in person to the recipients involves the following procedures:

  • Prepare all legal documents and ensure they are accurate and complete. Also, keep multiple copies of important documents for future reference.
  • Research and hire an experienced process server like On-Call Legal, and provide them with all necessary documents and instructions for service.
  • Provide your server with the name, address, detailed physical description, locations, schedules, and other service information of the party being served.
  • The process server then serves the documents in person and gives you proof of service, which you must file with the court.

In most cases, for personal service, you have 15–20 days before the court date to complete your service of process. However, if your server can’t find the recipient at home or work after trying 3 or more times, they can deliver it to a responsible individual at the party’s home residence or place of work. This substitute individual must be at least 18 years old. Your server must inform the substitute person of the kind of documents being served. After serving papers to the recipient, your server must mail a copy of the papers to the recipient’s last known address.

If your state approves a certified mail service, like in California, you can start by getting your server to mail the papers to the party’s house or mailing address through first-class mail or airmail. If it’s a business, mail the papers to the business owner or an agent of service if they have one. For service by mail, you must serve the document within 25–30 days before the court date. Then, the recipient has a five-day deadline to respond to the papers. You must include an acknowledgment form, a return envelope, and postage alongside the documents. The recipient will sign this form to confirm that they received/accepted service.

After the Service is Completed

After your server delivers the court papers, you should obtain a proof of service form from them and then file it with the court where your case is pending. You can either file this form in person, online, or by certified mail, but it must be filed within five days before the court date.

The Proof of Service form typically contains details about the service, which include the date, time, and how the server executed the service. If it’s a personal service or substituted service, the server must indicate the name of the person who received the papers and their relationship to the case. If it’s service by mail, the server must include to whom the document was mailed, when and how it was mailed, to what address, and where it was mailed from.

After they have signed the proof of service, the server returns it to you. You must ensure that the details are accurate before filing it with the court clerk’s office.

Legal Consequences of Improper Service

Legal Consequences of Improper Service

Improper service can negatively affect your case. The court may consider your service invalid, which may cause delays in the legal proceeding. The court may also rule in favor of the other party if they discover that you were not intentional enough to serve the legal papers correctly. In some cases, improper service can constitute a ground for an appeal even when the case has reached a judgment. This can affect the outcome of your case. Additionally, the recipient can file a motion to quash the subpoena or other court papers as long as they have valid reasons to prove improper service.

If the recipient files a motion against the validity of the service of process, the court will fix a date for a hearing to determine if your service process is valid. They may cross-check the proof of service and other evidence to know if you properly served papers. If the service is found to be improper, the court may order you to reattempt the service using a proper method. In some cases, the judgment may be overturned against you.

To avoid these consequences, you must ensure that your court papers, including subpoenas, are legally served in the right way, to the right entity, and at the right. Make sure that you comply with all service of process rules in your jurisdiction. In addition, always keep relevant records of the process, including all responses from the recipients. Also, it’s wise to seek legal advice if you’re not sure about the appropriate method of service. 

Hiring a Professional Process Server

As improper service of process may attract several negative consequences, it’s important to get familiar with the rules guiding who is qualified to serve court papers, the legally approved methods of service, the timeline for the whole process, and what to do after the service of process. Additionally, understand that different court papers may require different procedures, and the procedures may also vary across jurisdictions. Hence, you need a process server who is well-versed in the regulations governing service of process in your jurisdiction.

The best way to ensure accurate process of service in California is to hire the most reliable professional process servers in Los Angeles – On-Call Legal. We’re not just dedicated to helping attorneys and law firms prepare and deliver legal documents nationwide; we also offer all-inclusive legal support services including court filing, messenger services, county recording services, etc. Book a free consultation with us today to get started!

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