May 28, 2020
How to Serve Your Claim

The person or business you are suing is called the Defendant. Before your case can be heard in Small Claims Court, each Defendant must receive a copy of your claim. This is called "serving" the Defendant or "service". The Defendant must be served within the State of California. There are 2 exceptions: 1) If your complaint involves real property owned by a Defendant who lives outside the state of California; or 2) a car accident where the owner or operator of the motor vehicle involved in an accident is an out of state resident. Contact the Clerk's office for service instructions.

If the Defendant is a corporation, check to see if the Defendant maintains an agent for service in California by writing:

Secretary of State-Corporate Status Unit
1500 11th Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

Enclose a check for $4.00 for each corporate inquiry. You may also obtain the name of a corporation's Agent for Service of Process on line at

The Defendant must be served within explicit time limits. The Defendant must be served at least 15 days before the trial date if the Defendant is located in San Mateo County, or at least 20 days before the trial date if the Defendant is located outside of San Mateo County. Add 10 days to these limits if substitute service is made (see below).

You may not serve the claim yourself.

The Defendant can be served in one of the following ways:

  • By Personal Service:
    Any person who is 18 years old or older, and who is not a party to the claim, can serve the claim. A witness is generally considered party to the claim. The Defendant need not accept or touch the claim in order to be served. Once the Defendant has been correctly identified, the claim can be dropped at his feet.
  • By Substituted Service:
    A copy of your claim must be left at:
    • at the defendant's business with the person in charge; OR
    • at the defendant's home with a competent person who is at least 18 years old. The person who receives the claim must be told about its contents. Another copy must be mailed, first class, postage prepaid, to the defendant at the address where the paper was left. The service is not complete until 10 days after the copy is mailed.
    The person who serves the defendant must sign a court paper showing when the defendant was served. This paper is called a proof of service (form SC-104). It must be returned to the court clerk as soon as the defendant has been served. You can download Form SC-104 here. The Proof of Service must be filed at least five calendar days before the trial.
  • By a Registered Process Server:
    They are listed in the consumer yellow pages of your telephone book.
  • By a Sheriff:
    In some counties, a Sheriff will serve the claim for a fee. However, in San Mateo County the Sheriff will not serve claims.
  • By Certified Mail:
    Only the Small Claims Clerk can serve the claim this way. There is a fee. Service is completed when the receipt, signed by the Defendant is returned to the Clerk. If the Defendant refuses to sign, service is not considered complete.

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