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Small Claims Court

How to Serve a Small Claims Case

Updated April 29th 2022

9 min read

Serving a small claims case is a valuable means for resolving civil disputes. It’s a quick way to sue another party and get your money back.

How to Serve a Small Claims Case

How to Serve a Small Claims Case


Gavin M.


Introduction To Serving A Small Claims Case

Serving a small claims case is a valuable means for resolving civil disputes. It’s a quick way to sue another party and get your money back. The best part is, you don’t need a lawyer – you can do this all on your own. The following guide will walk you through the process of serving someone, or service of process, which is necessary to get your day in court. These rules are historically founded in the Due Process clauses of the United States Constitution.

It’s important to note that each state has particular regulations that must be followed to serve a small claims case. If they aren’t followed or if specific deadlines are not met on time, the hearing may be postponed. Having someone familiar with how to serve a small claims case will help you navigate the process efficiently and successfully. 

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What Is Service Of Process? 

To take someone to Small Claims Court, you first have to notify them that they are being sued, which is called ‘serving a defendant.’ This gives them the legal notice that action is being taken against them. Usually, you’ll have to do this in person, which is the most secure and effective method. At this time, you provide them with all the relevant paperwork explaining the case, known as “process.” These papers outline your complaint as the plaintiff, why you are suing them, and the details of when to show up in court. This allows them the fair opportunity to respond to your claim. Taken together, this process of giving them the paperwork is known as “service of process,” and it is a necessary step to serve a small claims case.

Service of process is usually performed by an adult professional who is not a party to the case. Since you cannot do this yourself, you will likely need to hire a process server, typically regulated by state. You should expect to pay them between $80 and $200, depending on the level of service they provide, the timeframe of this process, and the number of attempts it takes them to deliver the paperwork.

What may sound like a simple process may actually take some time. So be patient; sometimes, it really does take more than one attempt. Hiring a professional process server will put your mind at ease, knowing that the paperwork will be delivered to the right person and on time. 

Who Do You Serve In A Small Claims Case?

You need to serve each of the defendants in the small claims case. You can do this by providing the paperwork to them directly or by leaving it with an authorized representative.

If the defendant is a person, the summons and complaint must be given directly to them or left with another adult resident of their home or a manager at their place of work.

If the defendant is a business, then you should serve the registered agent in the state where you’re filing the small claims lawsuit. If there is no registered agent for that business in the state, make sure you have the correct legal name of the defendant. 

What Are The Main Types Of Service For Small Claims Court?

There are different methods to complete service of process for your small claims case. These include personal service, substitute service, and service by mail, all of which are valid, yet may come with advantages or disadvantages.

  • In personal service, the paperwork is given directly to the defendant after confirming their identity. They are informed that these are court papers in a legal proceeding being held against them. Personal service is the best way to ensure that the defendant is served.
  • Substitute service is a broad category that involves giving the paperwork to a suitable person at the defendant’s home or business. For example, the paperwork could be given to another resident in the house that is 16 years of age or older. Another example of a substitute could be a manager (or a person at least seemingly in charge) of the company that the defendant works at. This method is not very reliable in serving a small claims case, however, because it may not be certain that the papers are actually received by the defendant.
  • Finally, the last and typically least effective method is service by mail. This can be difficult because it is an indirect method, and it effectively gives them a choice if they want to make your life easy or not. In this method, usually a court clerk will send the small claims court paperwork by certified mail, which requires signature upon receipt, acknowledging that the person received it and has been served. However, as you can imagine, this is not a very reliable method, as sometimes the court cannot determine whether the defendant has, in fact, actually received the papers.

Though there are different methods to complete service of process, personal service by a professional process server is the most dependable way to serve a small claims case.

Other Methods Of Service For Small Claims

There are other means to serving a small claims case, which could be considered in some instances to achieve service of process.

  • Some companies may accept service electronically. This may seem convenient for you, but figuring this out for the particular business involved might be more trouble than it's worth for a first-time lawsuit in small claims court.
  • Alternatively, you could petition the court to allow service of process by publication, where you let the defendant know that you’re suing them in small claims court by putting an ad in a local newspaper.
  • Finally, you may look into hiring a process server to perform a stakeout service, where they’ll wait outside the defendant’s apartment or home and catch them as they are leaving or returning home. This method can be pretty expensive, at around $75 per hour, with a minimum hour requirement. Still, it can be very effective, particularly when service of process becomes really challenging and the defendant is trying to avoid being served by you in small claims court. 

If personal service is not a viable method, you may try alternate service methods to ensure that your case can be brought to small claims court reliably and on time.

Notable Requirements To Serving A Small Claims Case

There are important requirements that must be met before you have your day in small claims court. It’s best to pay attention to the details here if you want it to go smoothly. Factors such as time, place, and method of service all play a role.

  • First of all, be sure to meet all deadlines on time. Not adhering to prescheduled dates will cause needless delays and could result in the failure of your small case.
  • Second, the place where the defendant is served could affect how many days before the hearing you have to serve them. For example, factors such as whether the defendant is in the same county or a different county from the courthouse could influence the timeframe of the service process, ranging from 15-25 days or more before the hearing. Additionally, some states may regulate a hearing date and time prior to service. So don’t delay!
  • Finally, there may be requirements on the method of serving your small claims case as well. Some states may require that you serve the defendant only when he or she is in the state, or they may require special permission for out-of-state service. Also, if you’re suing an out-of-state business with no authorized representative, you may need to serve the secretary of state.

All of these factors could make it tricky, but not impossible, to meet the appropriate requirements when serving a small claims case. Each small claims case is different, so it’s important to be aware of the necessary requirements for your claims to be served. 

How To Help Your Process Server

Of course, the defendant will not be happy that they are being sued in small claims court, and they may even try to avoid being served. So there are things you can do that can help your process server deliver the papers and not waste precious time.

  • Make sure that your process server knows what the defendant looks like. You could give them a picture of the person and a physical description so that he or she can be easily recognized. This way the process server will be confident when finding the defendant, and they could even perform drop-service if the defendant doesn’t want to accept the paperwork or confirm their identity.
  • You should also make sure that you’ve done all your research to send the process server to the correct address. Sure, process servers are professionals, but they may not have as much information as you. It might take them more time to gather enough information on an address or take them multiple attempts to confirm the residency of the defendant. So help them out by doing some research of your own, since you are likely familiar with the defendant and where he or she lives. To do this, there are various guides online to finding addresses, some better than others. Consider investing the time and money to perform a skip-trace or property search to help you find the right address. Skip-tracing is often used by real estate investors to find out who owns a home. This may be useful to you in searching for the defendant's home address.

By doing a little bit of homework, you can help equip your process server to deliver the paperwork successfully and serve a small claims case on time.  

Conclusion To How To Serve A Small Claims Case

Hiring the right process server is essential to having your day in Small Claims Court. At Dispute, we hire and manage process servers all across the country, so we’re very familiar with serving a small claims case and getting the job done. Serving a small claims case is not too complicated if you have a knowledgeable process server on your side. By choosing Dispute, you are ensuring the best chance to serve your defendant in a small claims case.

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