Close

How to Serve Divorce Papers in California

 

You can’t get a divorce in California without legally notifying your spouse. The process you’ll use is called serving.

An adult unidentified with your case (like a friend, the county sheriff, or the postal service) must give your spouse the divorce forms, fill out a different form as proof of the service, and file that completed document with the court.

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 court. 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. 

​​Important time frames to consider

Some people file a Request For Order (FL-300) form with their petition. This form asks the court to make temporary decisions about things like child custody or spousal support. 

If you used this document, you must serve your papers at least 16 court days before the court date. If you didn’t use the FL-300 form, your deadlines may be different. Ask the clerk for clarification.

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.

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 time frames 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

Choosing a server: Who can serve divorce papers?

California requires a petitioning party (the person who files original paperwork) to officially hand over documents through a formal serving process.

You cannot serve documents yourself, and you can’t skip any official step (like filing proof of service). If you don’t serve papers properly, the court will not move forward with your case.

As the National Association of Professional Process Servers points out, using an unaffiliated third party helps to protect your partner’s right to due process, as stated in the Constitution. Since you’re a party to the case, you might have a vested interest in keeping some details private. By using an outsider, you demonstrate to the court that you’re being as open and transparent about the case as possible.  

A process server is an adult (at least 18 years old) unconnected to your case. That could be a business, the sheriff, a friend, or the mail. We’ll go into these options below.

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 their receipt to your server, and that piece of paperwork gets filed with the court. 

To make this step easier for your spouse, include an envelope with your server’s address printed on it. Be sure to attach the right amount of postage. 

5. Serve by publication

If you’re not exactly sure where your spouse is but are 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.

The rules can shift depending on where the person you need to serve lives:

  • In another state: You could serve your paperwork via the U.S. Postal Service if you’re certain your spouse will sign and send a form back to you. Get the Notice of Acknowledgment and Receipt (form FL-117), write your spouse’s name in item 1, and check the boxes in item 4. Give this form to your server, along with the paperwork you need to give your ex. Your server will fill out item 2 on the day the papers were mailed, sign the form, and make a copy of it. Your server will mail the documents. Your spouse will fill out FL-177 and mail it back to your server. Your server will file it and the Proof of Service of Summons (form FL-115) with the court.
  • In another country: You must follow official rules between the United States and the country where the person lives. The Hague Convention or the Inter-American Convention may have specific requirements that apply to your case. It’s best to hire a professional to help you with these steps.
  • On a military base: People who serve in the military have extremely complicated protections that can vary by the type of service and where they are based. The Judicial Branch of California recommends hiring a lawyer to assist with cases like this.

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.

Watch: Comprehensive Guide to Serving Your Spouse in California Divorce

 

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. 

References

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.
Service of Process/Proof of Service. Superior Court of California, County of San Diego.
What Is a Process Server, and Why Do I Need to Hire One? National Association of Professional Process Servers

Watch: How to Get a Divorce in California
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
VP, Customer Service & Family Law Attorney
Communication, Relationships, Personal Growth
After managing the recording studio and major transactions for multi-Grammy-winning band Green Day for 13 years, she earned her JD in Family Law and joined Erin at Hello Divorce, where she now makes sure every aspect of our customers' journey with Hello Divorce is transparent, less stressful, and successful.