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Laws Pertaining to Process Serving in California

Section 415.20 (b) of the California Civil Code Of Procedure states: 

If a copy of the summons and complaint cannot with reasonable diligence be personally delivered to the person to be served, as specified in Section 416.60, 416.70, 416.80, or 416.90, a summons may be served by leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at the person's dwelling house, usual place of abode, usual place of business, or usual mailing address other than a United States Postal Service post office box, in the presence of a competent member of the household or a person apparently in charge of his or her office, place of business, or usual mailing address other than a United States Postal Service post office box, at least 18 years of age, who shall be informed of the contents thereof, and by thereafter mailing a copy of the summons and of the complaint by first-class mail, postage prepaid to the person to be served at the place where a copy of the summons and complaint were left. Service of a summons in this manner is deemed complete on the 10th day after the mailing.

Process servers understand “dwelling house” or “usual place of abode” to mean the actual location where the person is currently living. In practice, it means the person’s official residence or where he or she is currently staying. Most courts seem to consider the “dwelling house” to be where the person is currently staying and the “usual place of abode” to be the person’s permanent residence. For example, a person may live with his parents but be currently away at school in a dormitory. The dormitory would be his dwelling house and his usual place of abode would be his parents’ home. He may return home on vacation and school breaks. He may plan to return home permanently after he finishes school. The same applies to a person currently away for treatment at a medical center, on a business trip, on a vacation or retreat.

The phrase “usual place of business” can also mean different things. A person working every day in an office on 7th Street would have that address as her usual place of business. A doctor, however, might have several different locations as his usual place of business: a hospital, his office, and a mobile unit. A salesman working at different company locations and a teacher working for more than one educational institution might also be able to claim more than one usual place of business.

A person’s “usual mailing address,” with the exception of a U.S.P.S. post office box, may consist of a private mailbox service or any other definite location that he or she uses as a mailing address. The person does not actually have to pick up or receive the mail at this address, but the person must give this address as his or her mailing address. If a process server is directed to send a person’s mail to a specific address, the address can be considered the person’s usual mailing address. The server has no way to verify whether the person is picking up or receiving the mail at that address. To evade creditors, some people will give out a mailing address but never pick the mail up.

A “competent member of the household” refers to any resident of the household, not just family members. The phrase includes full-time live-in nannies, maids, gardeners, friends, and partners. As long as a person resides at the location full time, he or she is considered a member of the household.

The phrase “person apparently in charge” does not mean, as a process server might believe, a manager or officer of the mailing address or business. The word “apparently” is important. For example, if a receptionist will not allow the process server to see anyone else, the receptionist is the highest person in charge that can be served. A clerk who works at a mailbox service may be the only person apparently in charge at the location.

When a complaint is served at a gated community or building where the security guard will not allow entry, the security guard is deemed a competent member of the household and his post the outer bounds of the actual dwelling location. On May 28, 1992, in the case of Robert Bein vs Bechtel-Jochim, the California Court Of Appeals affirmed that a guard gate constitutes part of the dwelling and the guard is a competent member within the dwelling. The court reasoned that when a process server is not permitted to enter the actual residence, the outer bounds of the dwelling place must be considered to extend to the location where his or her progress was arrested.

The meaning of “reasonable diligence” is interpreted differently in different jurisdictions. In general, however, at least three attempts should be made at least eight hours apart. At least two of those attempts should be made at the address where the papers are served. If contact is still unsuccessful, a substituted service made on the fourth attempt is usually considered valid.

The above does not constitute legal advice. It is given as general information only and opinions formed over the years through the experience of investigative agencies providing process serving services. Although the information is believed to be correct, no guarantee is made or implied as to its accuracy.


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