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California: Service of Summons by Acknowledgment

In a prior post, I went over how it’s possible in California to use a newspaper ad to serve a defendant in a lawsuit who either can’t be found or purposely does not want to be found. Serving a defendant by publication in this way is the exception rather than the norm. Today, I’m going to go over another service method which usually isn’t the norm, but really should be: Service by Acknowledgment. The applicable statute in California is Code of Civil Procedure section 415.30(a).

“Service by Acknowledgment” is a fancy of way of saying that the summons and complaint in the case is simply mailed to the Defendant along with a form (called the “Acknowledgment”) that the Defendant then signs and mails back to the Plaintiff. The fact that the Defendant signs and mails it back is the proof that the Defendant was served.

The benefit of the Service by Acknowledgment method should be obvious: it’s extremely cheap and simple. All it takes is the cost of postage and the Defendant’s cooperation. In comparison, the cost of hiring a process server to locate and serve a defendant would almost certainly be more, especially if the process server has to make multiple attempts. For these reasons, I generally try to use Service by Acknowledgment whenever possible.

In California, there are standard Acknowledgment forms. For California family law cases, the Acknowledgement is California Judicial Council Form FL-117. For regular civil cases (e.g. breach of contract, personal injury, etc) in California, the Acknowledgment is Judicial Council Form POS-015.

Two points to know about Service by Acknowledgment under CCP section 415.30:

  • The summons and complaint in the case are deemed “served” on the Defendant (i.e. the Defendant’s 30-day clock to file an answer under CCP section 412.20 starts) on the date they put on the Acknowledgment. In addition to signing the Acknowledgment form, the Defendant also has to date their signature.
  • If you’re a defendant who receives a summons and complaint along with an Acknowledgment form, refusing to sign and return the Acknowledgment form within 20 calendar days of receiving it doesn’t prevent or obstruct the lawsuit from happening. The Plaintiff simply has to serve the Defendant in another way (e.g. via personal service), but Defendant must then pay for that alternate method of service under CCP section 415.30(d). Thus, it is absolutely pointless — and potentially very expensive — for a defendant to try and avoid service by Acknowledgment.

Anyway, as always, I hope this post was helpful. Remember, it’s not meant to be a comprehensive examination of serving a summons and complaint by Acknowledgment. My intent was only to introduce the concept to hopefully help those of you stuck in a situation where a Service by Acknowledgment might be really useful. If you have a situation that requires more in-depth assistance than this post and the resources linked in it can offer, please do find an attorney in your area to discuss your situation one-on-one.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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