How to Serve Divorce Papers in California

In one year, more than 630,000 couples get divorced in the U.S. To obtain a divorce, spouses must follow the rules and regulations of the state they filed in. In California, a divorce begins when the petitioning spouse serves the other with a series of legal documents. 

Serving your spouse involves rules, too. You can’t personally give your partner these papers, even if you get along. You must work with a third party that delivers the documents and signs legal forms confirming the initiation of divorce proceedings. 

Kicking off the divorce filing process can be intimidating. And even when this step is complete, you’ll have many more forms to fill out before your divorce is finalized. 

But remember that thousands of people file for divorce every day. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it doesn't need to be if you take it one step at a time.

What does it mean to serve divorce papers?

Filing paperwork with a California court initiates your divorce. Serving papers means formally delivering copies of that paperwork to your spouse. 

When you serve papers, you notify your partner that you’d like to dissolve your marriage or partnership through the California courts. You also provide data about your marriage, any children or pets, and your finances, so the court can help determine how to dissolve your affairs and estate. 

As stated, you can’t personally give your partner these important documents – even if you're still living together and both know about the divorce plans. Instead, another adult must hand your spouse a copy of the papers you filed. This server then completes a form about the process and gives it to the court, documenting that the formal process is complete. 

What documents should be served?

California requires a lot of paperwork, and it's important to deliver the right pieces to your server. Remember that a divorce is a legal proceeding and missing a step could mean delaying your divorce. 

All the forms you need to serve divorce papers are available online for no fee. After you serve the papers, you'll have even more forms to fill out. But for now, these are the crucial forms that should be bundled together to initiate divorce proceedings: 

FL-100: Petition for divorce

This form begins your divorce process. In it, you'll provide basic information about you, your spouse or domestic partner, and the type of divorce you're seeking. Prepare to answer questions about why you're dissolving your partnership on this form. 

FL-110: Summon your partner 

Your spouse must respond to your paperwork, and timeframes are tight. This form helps your partner understand the next steps, and it provides some information about what isn't allowed as you process your divorce. For example, your partner can't hide assets or move out of state with your children.

FL-105: Discuss your children 

If your children are younger than 18, they're likely to be significantly affected by your divorce. Use this form to tell the court where your children were born, whether they’re involved in other court cases, and other critical pieces of data used in custody cases. 

If you don’t share children with your spouse, you can skip this form. 

FL-115: Show your work 

Your server uses this form to document that the paperwork was delivered legally. The person offers information about when the papers were served, who served them, and where the transfer took place. 

You must fill out the top portion of this form, but your server will do the rest. 

FL-120: Let the other party respond

This form allows your partner to react to your petition for divorce. You must include a blank copy of this form with the paperwork you serve, so your partner has a chance to work within the court system and move your case forward. Your spouse will fill out this document and file it with the court. 

FL-160: Discuss your property

You’ll have plenty of time to decide how to split up your household. But if you want to get started early, use this form to declare your debts and assets. This property declaration is optional. 

FL-311: Outline childcare plans

If you share children, custody plans will enter your divorce proceedings. Use this form to describe your vision for your children. If you’d like more time to consider these steps, don’t fill out the form now. 

Visit this page: California Divorce Forms

5 ways to serve divorce papers in California 

Download all the forms you need, fill them out, and make two copies of the documents. Take this bundle of papers to a court clerk, and pay a filing fee of up to $450 to file the documents. 

Then, you're ready to serve your partner with those papers. Here are your options: 

1. Use a trusted partner

Ask someone older than 18 with no claim to your case to serve your partner with papers. You can ask a family member (like a sibling) to help, but remember to leave your children out of this conversation. They are parties to your case, so they can't serve papers for you. 

2. Ask the county sheriff

In almost all California counties, the sheriff's department will serve papers for you. Officers charge a fee for this service, and the cost can vary from county to county. But officials like this can serve your documents professionally and quickly. 

3. Hire a process server

More than 300 people are registered in California with the National Association of Professional Process Servers. These people are experts at both delivering paperwork and filing required documents. Their fees can vary. 

4. Use the mail

Ask your server (such as a sibling or close friend) to mail the paperwork to your spouse. Once the documents arrive, your spouse will mail back a signed notice of receipt to your server, and that piece of paperwork gets filed with the courts. To make this step easier for your spouse, include an envelope addressed to your server, and affix the proper postage. 

5. Serve by publication

If you’re not exactly sure where your spouse is but you’re aware of the general area, you can use newspapers to serve papers. This is a very old-fashioned method of serving papers if nothing else works. You’ll pay the publishing fees, and you must share this document once per week for four weeks. If you use this route, you must use two additional forms (FL-980 and FL-982) to prove your work. 

Serving a spouse living out of state

Some couples put many miles between them before they divorce. If your spouse no longer lives in California, consider alternate ways to serve divorce papers. 

Some opt to serve paperwork by mail. It's less expensive than hiring someone in California to drive to the other state and serve your partner. And it's a more efficient way to communicate with someone over such a long distance. 

If your partner lives in another country, the rules are more complicated. Sometimes, country-to-country rules dictate your next steps. It's best to work with a legal expert in cases like this. 

How long should you wait?

Your spouse has a full 30 days to file a response to your paperwork. The clock starts ticking when those documents move from your server to your partner. While you're probably eager to move forward with the divorce, you must wait for your partner to respond. 

Serving divorce papers in California FAQ

Many people have questions about serving divorce papers in California. Here are a couple of the most frequently asked questions that people have shared with us:

Can you serve your own divorce papers?

No. Another adult must deliver the paperwork for you and file documents about that transfer. You can't do this step alone. 

Can you serve documents in the mail?

Yes. Your partner must sign the paperwork and send back an official notice of receipt. This process can take a little longer than an in-person service. 

Watch: How to Get a Divorce in California



Marriage and Divorce. (March 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
Serve Your Divorce Papers. Judicial Branch of California. 
Divorce Forms. Judicial Branch of California. 
File Your Divorce Petition and Summons. Judicial Branch of California. 
Process Servers in California. National Association of Professional Process Servers. 
Serve by Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt. Judicial Branch of California. 
Ask to Serve by Publication or Posting. Judicial Branch of California. 
Service Rules for Special Situations. Judicial Branch of California. 
Starting Your Divorce. Superior Court of California, County of Contra Costa.