Table of contents
Why do I need this service?
As you may know, after filing a case in small claims court you are required to serve the defendant (often called defendant service or service of process) with the court approved paperwork. You can read about different options to do this, but most folks will recommend using a professional process server if you want the fastest, easiest, and most likely to succeed attempts. Dispute offers this service at a competitive rate (see our pricing for your area on your dashboard). You don't have to buy this through us, but here's what we do:
- We make up to 3 attempts at the address you provide to serve the defendant
- If possible, we look for other known addresses for the person by using professional databases that are not available to most people
- We automatically file proof of service (or proof of attempt but failed service) with the court so that the judge can see it
Our cost is very competitive with other providers (go ahead and search for it!) and with Dispute, you always get great support in case something goes wrong.
No guarantees we can find the defendant!
Dispute does not guarantee we will serve the defendant when you buy this service
We've all seen movies where someone hides out in their parents basement to avoid getting served. Because people will often hide, no process server can ever guarantee that they'll be able to find the person.
Additionally, process serving is time consuming and expensive - we will literally send a person out on the streets to hand your stamped paperwork to the person. Even if we can't find them, this costs us money and therefore we cannot refund your fees for process of service, even if we don't find the person.
But we understand the stress and time this costs you
That said, we will do our best. The people who work at Dispute have gone through the small claims court experience themselves, and we know how stressful it is. We will do our absolute best to get the person served, or otherwise file the right documents to help you continue with your case regardless (see below for other options).
Continue reading to see what options you have if we can't find the defendant.
Options you have if we can't find the defendant
The normal way service works
Normally, you have to get someone not involved in the case to hand the court papers to the defendant. When you purchase this service through Dispute, we use professional servers who are licensed by the state, know the exact law for what counts as valid service, and can sign sworn statements for Proof of Service or Due Diligence to file directly with the court.
Dispute's professional process servers will make up to 3 attempts to find the person at the address you provide us. They will try to go on different days of the week, and at different times of the day each time, to maximize the chances of finding the person.
This kind of "service" is called "personal service" and is valid in all small claims court cases.
Give us a new address
You can always give us a new address if you find one, but remember that defendant service is charged per defendant, per address. So this will cost you extra. The good news is that all of these costs will add up and we'll file Proof of Service/Non-service with the court to tell them all the costs you paid for service.
These costs will be awardable back to you if you win.
When the defendant can't be found at all
When the defendant cannot be found, things get more complicated.
Step 1: File Proof of Non-service (we'll handle this)
First, our professional process servers will still file a Proof of Non-service directly with the court. This is the proof that you paid for a licensed professional to find the person and they failed. This is important because it shows the court that you made a very good faith attempt at serving the papers.
Step 2: Get the court's permission to use an alternative way to serve (you need to do this)
There are many alternative ways to serve someone who cannot be found by "personal service." But these methods usually require the courts permission to use. For example, you can "serve" someone by mailing them first class mail that contains their documents at their address. But to do this, the judge must tell you this is an acceptable way to serve the person.
Judges try to understand how hard you have tried to serve this person. Hiring and paying for a professional, state licensed server who even attempted to find alternative addresses is pretty good evidence you tried hard.
The judge can then postpone your trial and authorize you to serve the defendant with an alternative. Because of this you should always go to your trial even if you were unable to serve the defendant after trying.
If you don't go, you can't talk to the judge about it.
Step 3: Use the alternative way that's been approved by the judge (you need to hire us or someone to do this)
If the judge says "go ahead and just mail them the papers" then you will need to hire us to mail them papers (remember, you must always find someone else who is not involved in the trial to serve the defendant, no matter which way you are serving).
This service will cost you more, but again, we will file the Proof of Service with the court which will include the cost you paid us to do this. All of these service fees add up and can be awarded back to you if you win your case.
Step 4: Go to your postponed trial again (you need to do this)
Next time you go to your trial, having done what the judge allowed, you'll have a strong case to move forward with the case. If the defendant doesn't show, you'll have a stronger chance of getting a default judgement.
How can I collect a judgement from someone when I can't find them?
Dispute does not help collect judgements in any way. We help you get the case filed, and beyond that you'll have to find someone else to help. This guide might help you do that.
It might seem like a judgement against someone who can't be found is useless, but in reality you do have a few options:
Option 1: You may be able to sell the judgement to a collections agency
Most people hate collections agencies, for good reason. However, if someone has truly wrong you and you need to get your money back, this could be a good option to get some of your money quickly. Collections agencies won't pay you 100% of what you're owed, but in exchange they'll give you the money quickly and take on the responsibility of finding the person and getting them to pay.
Remember, Dispute is not a collections agency and we cannot help you collect your judgement. Collections agencies are regulated differently and is an entirely different business.
Option 2: Ask the court for help to garnish wages or collect from assets
You can file a separate motion with the court to authorize you to garnish the defendants wages (by talking to their employer) or seize assets from their bank accounts (by talking to their bank). These options require additional court filings and Dispute does not currently support additional court filings. Of course, this also requires you to know who the employer or bank is.
Option 3: Wait for the defendant to surface
Judgements are valid for up to 10 years, and can be renewed. This allows you to wait for the defendant to eventually resurface or find their employer in the future and try one of the options above.
How to postpone your trial
When to consider postponing your small claims court date
Usually, the courts are slow at processing cases, and assign you a court date a few months in the future. But sometimes they can surprise you by giving you a date a few weeks away. You must serve the defendant approx. 2 weeks before your trial date so in some cases, you'll want to postpone the trial because the professional server just hasn't had enough time to make all their attempts.
Another reason to postpone your court trial date is to get more time to find new addresses for a defendant, find their place of work, or prepare your evidence.
Remember you should always go to a scheduled court date, even if you aren't completely ready. The judge can always give you a postponement at the trial, and it's better to explain to them what's going on, rather than skip a trial date.
How to postpone a small claims court date
There are generally 3 ways to postpone a court date (some may or may not work depending on what the court clerk at your court prefers):
- Call the court clerk on the phone and ask for a postponement. This is the easiest and fastest way, if the clerk allows you. If they don't, they'll usually tell how you how to do it instead.
- File an official court form asking for postponement. Dispute does not currently support these forms but we can send you a blank form if you need one.
- **Go to your trial date and ask the judge for a postponement. **It is OK to go to a trial date and tell the judge you need more time. That's better than not showing up at all. Do not skip your trial date if you have one.
How to postpone last minute
It happens. Sometimes you have a last minute issue come up the night before or day of your trial, and you need a postponement. The good news is you can almost always get one. Call the court clerk, or go to your trial and ask the judge for a postponement.