Help me understand how property tax works.

If the property tax has to be served as a lawsuit- correct me if that is wrong- then I see problems.

  1. I buy a huge amount of property in an area.

  2. I live in some other, hard to reach jurisdiction to evade service.

  3. Gov goes to collect tax.

  4. Gov sues over delinquency.

  5. They can never find me so lawsuit never happens.

  6. Gov collapses from lack of tax revenue

Does the government have a way to bypass the service and take the property?

And by the way, theres a lot of fraudulent service by publication, but done legally it's still supposed to be where the defendants are. I.e., it is not intended to be a magical get out of jail card for a missing defendant.

  • 6
    At a quick glance I'm not finding anything in California law requiring delinquent property tax notifications be personally served on the owner. I believe in many places, it's enough that they mail a letter to the property's address, and maybe run a notice in the local newspaper. If you don't respond they will auction off the property on the courthouse steps, take what's due out of the proceeds, and hold whatever remains until you come to claim it. I don't know of any place where the tax collector actually has to sue you. Nov 25, 2020 at 3:56
  • But the way service by publication is done is usually borderline fraudulent.
    – anon
    Nov 25, 2020 at 6:19
  • For example if the defendant is in a foreign country, the cost of service by publication should be de facto prohibitive.
    – anon
    Nov 25, 2020 at 6:24
  • no, service by publication is not fraudulent: they need to publish in the local newspaper of the place the court is at. not where the person might be.
    – Trish
    Nov 25, 2020 at 7:30
  • But that is basically not service.
    – anon
    Nov 25, 2020 at 7:32

2 Answers 2


If the property tax has to be served as a lawsuit- correct me if that is wrong

To the best of my understanding, that is wrong. Property tax default and sale, under California law, is not a judicial process: the state does not sue the owner, no courts are involved, and the usual court rules for service of process are not applicable.

The procedure for tax sale is in Taxation and Revenue Code Sections 3691 - 3731.1. The notification requirements vary depending on the type of property. For instance, for vacant residential developed property which is not the primary residence of the assessee, the relevant requirements are the following. Emphases are mine.

  • (3691(b)(2): Before the tax collector sells vacant residential developed property pursuant to this subdivision, actual notice, by certified mail, shall be provided to the property owner, if the property owner’s identity can be determined from the county assessor’s or county recorder’s records. The tax collector’s power of sale shall not be affected by the failure of the property owner to receive notice.

  • 3701: (a) Not less than 45 days nor more than 120 days before the proposed sale, the tax collector shall send notice of the proposed sale by certified mail with return receipt requested to the last known mailing address, if available, of parties of interest, as defined in Section 4675. The notice shall state the date, time, and place of the proposed sale, the amount required to redeem the property, and the fact that the property may be redeemed up to the close of business on the last business day prior to the date of the sale, and information regarding the rights of parties of interest to claim excess proceeds, as defined in Section 4674, if the property is sold and excess proceeds result from that sale.

    (b) The tax collector shall make a reasonable effort to obtain the name and last known mailing address of parties of interest.

    (c) The validity of any sale under this chapter shall not be affected if the tax collector’s reasonable effort fails to disclose the name and last known mailing address of parties of interest or if a party of interest does not receive the mailed notice.

  • 3702(a): (a) The tax collector shall publish the notice of intended sale once a week for three successive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation published in the county seat and in a newspaper of general circulation published in the public notice district in which the property is situated. If the same newspaper of general circulation is published in both the county seat and in the public notice district, or if the publication of the notice of sale is made in a newspaper which is determined pursuant to Section 3381 as most likely to afford adequate notice of the sale, a publication in that newspaper shall satisfy the requirements for publication set forth in this section. If there is no newspaper published in the county seat or in the public notice district, then publication in the location in which there is no newspaper may be made by posting notice in three public places in the county seat. The publication shall be started not less than 21 days prior to the date of the sale.

So, generally speaking, the tax collector is only required to make a "reasonable effort" to notify you, which basically means sending letters to your known addresses if any, and to publish notice of the sale in a local newspaper. They are not required to prove that you received them. If you ignore the letters, or do not arrange for them not to reach you, or they cannot find your address, then that's just too bad for you: the sale will go ahead. The property will be sold at auction, traditionally on the courthouse steps; the government will take the owed taxes out of the proceeds of the sale, and whatever's left over, if anything, will be held in a government account for you to claim at your convenience.

(In the case of "a property that is the primary residence of the last known assessee", Section 3704.7 imposes an additional requirement for the tax collector to "make a reasonable effort to contact in person [...] the owner-occupant of that property", presumably meaning they should send someone to the property to knock on the door, and if that fails then they "shall attempt to serve written notice" which I would guess means something like taping a letter to the front door. Nonetheless, these still only require an attempt to contact the owner; it doesn't have to succeed, and if it doesn't the sale can go ahead.)

The government will get what they're owed, one way or another. Your evil scheme is futile.


There are a few problems with your line of reasoning, but the main one is that if the government can't locate a defendant, California's Rules of Civil Procedure provide a variety of alternative means of service.

When all else fails, the government can serve the defendant "by publication," meaning that they simply publish a notice of the lawsuit in a newspaper.

If the defendant fails to appear to defend the suit after service by publication, the court will enter default judgment, the government will seize the property, sell it, and use the resulting revenue to continue operating.

  • Wait but.... that means states which dont have service by publication have a problem. And even in California, the publication can be done wrong and is a headache.
    – anon
    Nov 25, 2020 at 6:18
  • @NNnnj no, they don't have a problem: They can enter defalt faster!
    – Trish
    Nov 25, 2020 at 7:28
  • 1
    That doesnt make sense.
    – anon
    Nov 25, 2020 at 8:50
  • @NNnnj I don't know of any state that doesn't have service by publication. Even if they did, there aren't enough property owners with the means and motivation to evade service to create any meaningful threat of governmental collapse. And even if there were, the government could simply establish alternative revenue streams (which it has actually already done).
    – bdb484
    Nov 25, 2020 at 9:28
  • Nevada or the majority of states.
    – anon
    Nov 25, 2020 at 18:45

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