When one party chooses to take legal action against another—whether it be a lawsuit after a car accident, divorce, or other matter—a notice of the action and/or a summons to appear before a judge to resolve the dispute needs to be delivered to the defendant. 

In California, just about anyone over the age of 18 who is not involved in the case can legally serve papers. In many cases, professional process servers will do the job.

The laws and rules regulating process serving – what process servers can and cannot do to get legal papers to the people who need to see them – vary from state to state. In California, the following rules apply and govern what exactly a process server can do to serve papers.

What a Process Server Can Do

In many cases, serving legal notices is neither a surprise nor is it overly challenging. Typically, a process server will wait outside a person’s home or place of employment until they see him or her and serve them with the papers. 

This type of service is legal and is known as “personal service.” It is often accepted that personal service is the most reliable way to serve papers as it guarantees receipt of the papers.

If a process server is unable to find the party, there are other means of service he or she can pursue, including:

  • Service by mail. After mailing the legal notices, the server must fill out a proof of service form listing the basic information of how they served the papers and then turn that document into the court. While this method of service is easy enough it is not as reliable as personal service.
  • Substituted Service. If a process server is not able to locate the party they are serving after several attempts at contact, they can serve the legal notices to someone who lives with the other party and is over the age of 18. If legal notices are served in this way, the server needs to fill out a declaration of due diligence and a proof of service form and submit both to the court.
  • Service by publication. With the court’s permission, if a server doesn’t know where to find the party they need to serve, they can have the legal notice published in a widely circulated newspaper.
  • Service by posting. This method also requires permission from the court. Service by posting means the legal notices are posted at the courthouse.

There are numerous other ways process servers can serve papers. There are also a number of things process servers cannot do when they are serving legal notices. It is often important to keep these in mind as well.

What Process Servers Cannot Do

Because many of the methods of service listed above require extra work and effort, many servers want to personally serve papers as quickly as possible. While many know how to get creative about finding the parties they need to serve and getting the papers into their hands, there are several things they cannot do, including:

  • Trespass. While process servers can come onto your property, if they have to pass a locked entrance to enter, they are barred from doing so.
  • Break and enter. Process servers cannot break into a person’s home to serve them with papers.
  • Impersonate police officers. If a party refuses to open a door to a server, they cannot say they are law enforcement.
  • Harassment. A process server cannot threaten someone if they choose not to open the door to them.

Obviously, in some cases, people will not want to be served with papers. Not being served, however, does not make legal troubles disappear, and process servers know that. Most of the time they will follow the law and simply tell the judge what is happening. The judge will then often approve other methods of service.

If a person chooses to ignore the legal notices they have been served with and don’t respond within 30 days, their case could even enter into default judgment, meaning the other party has the right to begin collecting damages in the form of garnished wages and or money garnished from a bank account.

If you have been served with papers, don’t ignore them. Instead, hire a lawyer who can advise you on what to do next.