How to Serve Papers to Someone You Can’t Locate

Serving Papers to Someone Who Can't Be Found

When you wish to face someone in court in the State of California for any sort of legal proceeding, such as a divorce or lawsuit, in most cases you have to serve them via “personal service.” This means that the person being filed against must be physically provided with a paper copy of your claim by a representative, such as a sheriff, marshal, professional process server, a friend, or some other party. Until the other party is served, your court case cannot proceed.

There are a few exceptions to having to serve someone in person. For example, for small claims cases or instances in which the other party lives outside of California, you can have a representative serve the other party by certified mail. But in most instances, you must attempt to serve the other part in person. But, how do you serve someone if you don’t know where they are?

Requirements for attempting to serve someone via personal service.

Sometimes, it can be very difficult to locate someone, especially when they intentionally try to avoid being served. This can create a huge headache for the plaintiff.

Judges understand that it can be difficult to serve recalcitrant recipients. However, courts generally require the serving party to demonstrate that they have made a significant attempt at providing personal service. Each court’s requirements vary. For specifics, it’s best to consult with the court clerk at your local courthouse.

But generally speaking, you’ll need to be able to show that you have:

  • Looked for the other part at their last known residential and work addresses.
  • Mailed letters to their last known address with a request for the letter to be forwarded.
  • Contacted the other party’s family, friends, and any other contacts for information about their current whereabouts.
  • Conducted research—such as in phone books and online—for information on where the other party is located.

If you know where the other party is, you will need to have shown that you have attempted to serve the person at least three times at the address(es) at which you know they live or work.

You may be required to hire a process server and allow them to attempt to serve the other party repeatedly before the court is satisfied.

If you know where the person lives or works, but cannot reach them, you may be able to use substituted service.

Once you have adequately demonstrated that you have done your due diligence, the court will usually allow you to use other means of serving the other party.

If you know where they live or work, but have not been able achieve contact with them in-person, on your last attempt, you may serve them via “substituted service.” This simply means that paperwork can be provided to secondary party connected to the person you’re attempting to contact. If you are trying to serve them at their home, the paperwork can be given to another person who is at least 18 years old and lives at that address. If you are serving them at work, the paperwork can be left with someone at least 18 years of age who reasonably appears to have some authority, such as a boss or H.R. representative.

In either case, the receiving party must be informed at they are legal documents intended for the person you’re attempting to serve, and the server must collect the name and address of the person receiving the papers. If the receiver will not provide that information, the server must write down a detailed description of what the receiver looks like. Then, a copy of the serving papers must be mailed to the address at which the receiving party took the papers.

Finally, the server must fill out and submit a Declaration of Due Diligence, in which they must describe every previous attempt at serving the papers (when, where, what happened), as well as a Proof of Service describing how the papers were finally served, with identifying information on the recipient of the papers.

Substituted service is considered complete 10 days after this paperwork has been mailed.

There are alternative methods for serving someone whose location cannot be ascertained.

If you can demonstrate to the court that you have taken significant steps towards locating the other party, but ultimately cannot locate them, you may be allowed to utilize another serving method. However, the threshold for this is high. If you can identify any aspect of the other party’s routine that allows you to make contact somewhere—at a coffee house, library, gym, etc.—then you must make concerted, repeated attempts at having them served.

If all attempts fail, you may ask the court to give you permission to utilize one of a couple of other means:

  • Service by publication, which involves publishing your summons and complaint in a newspaper published in the area where you believe the other party to be.
  • Service by posting, which means that your summons and complaint is posted in the courthouse in a designated viewing area.

Both of these methods require prior court approval, and the submittal of a variety of paperwork.

The requirements for attempting to locate someone vary, and it may be wise to secure legal assistance.

The process of serving someone who cannot be easily located varies from court to court. Be sure to document every step of your attempt to locate the other party, such as:

Depending on the requirements of your court and the details of your particular case, it may be advisable to seek legal assistance. If you would like to learn more about how Toeppen & Grevious can assist you with your challenging legal case, you can call us at (916) 400-4516, or use our contact form to send us a message.