Serving Divorce Papers If You Can't Locate Your Spouse
Authored By: Children's Law Center
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What if I can't serve the papers because I can't find my spouse?
- If you cannot find your spouse, you must get permission from the court to publish a notice of the divorce in the newspaper or post a notice in the courthouse.
- This is called a Motion to Serve by Publication or Posting.
When can I file a motion to serve by publication or posting?
The judge can allow publication or posting if the judge decides that you have made sufficient efforts to find your spouse and your spouse cannot be found.
This means that you must first try to find your spouse. You will need to tell the judge in writing exactly what you did and the responses you received. This means that you need to keep a list of the places you contact and what you do or don't find out. Save copies of any documents you send or receive. Also save any mail that is returned to you as undeliverable.
How long do I have to do this?
- You have 60 days from the day you file your divorce papers to serve your spouse.
- If you are not able to file your Motion to Serve by Publication or Posting by then, you can go back to the Family Court Central Intake Center before the 60 days are up. They will give you a new Summons and you will get an additional 60 days.
- If you need more time after that, you will have to file a written request for more time and a judge will have to approve it. If you have your initial court hearing before the 60 days is up, you can ask the judge for more time at the initial hearing.
- If you do not follow these procedures, your case may be dismissed and you will have to file a motion to vacate the dismissal or file a new case and start all over again.
What do I have to do to try to find my spouse?
The law does not say exactly what you have to do. It depends on the situation. The judge will decide whether you have done enough.
Here are some suggestions about what kinds of efforts the court wants you to make to find your spouse:
- State the last time you saw your spouse and where.
- Send the court papers by certified mail, return receipt, to your spouse’s law known address. Also send the papers by regular mail. Send the court papers by certified mail, return receipt, to your spouse’s last known address. Also send the papers by regular mail. Save the mail when it is returned to you and attach copies of the envelops, which will show that the mail was returned to you as undeliverable.
- Check your spouse’s last known address in person, if possible and if you have no concerns about doing so.
- Contact your spouse's last known job, if any.
- Check with any of your spouse's family members that you can contact.
- Check D.C., Maryland and Virginia telephone information (411).
- Check through the internet.
- Check D.C. criminal court records (at the courthouse or through Court Cases Online website).
- Check Maryland criminal court records (at the courthouse or through the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website).
- Call the D.C. Jail (202-698-4932) and the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility (202-547-7822).
- Check the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.
- Check with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
- Check the U.S. military locator website.
- Check the Social Security Death Index website.
- Check local hospitals and homeless shelters (they may not give you information, but check with them anyway).
- Provide any other information you have to explain why you can't find your spouse and/or don’t have any other information to follow up on.
What if some of the people I ask won't give me any information?
You should state that in your motion.
When should I start trying to find my spouse - before or after I file my case?
You can make efforts to find your spouse either before or after you file your case, or both. But if too much time has gone by, the judge may make you try some things again so that the information is recent. You should mail the divorce papers (Complaint and Summons) to your spouse's last known address after you file the case, both certified mail/return receipt and also regular mail.
When I have finished searching for my spouse, what do I do?
- File a Motion to Serve By Publication or Posting. Click herefor a Motion to Serve By Publication or Posting that you can fill out on the computer. You will still need to print it out and file it with the court. You can also fill it out by hand.
- You can attach extra sheets listing what you did to try to find your spouse. Attach copies of any documents, print-outs, and returned mail that help show your efforts.
- There is a $20 filing fee unless the court has granted your request for a fee waiver.
What happens next?
The judge will review your motion and will sign an order either granting or denying your request. The order will be mailed to you, or you will get a copy of it at a court hearing.
What if my motion is denied?
- Sometimes the judge will say specifically what else you should do to try to find your spouse. You can go ahead and do those things.
- Sometimes the judge will only say that you haven't done enough. Then you have to figure out other efforts you can make to try to locate your spouse and show that your spouse cannot be found.
- After you have done these additional things, you can file the motion again. You can refer to your previous motion and then explain the additional things you have done.
If my motion for publication is granted, what happens next?
- Judges usually require that a notice be published once a week for three weeks in two newspapers, although only one is required. One newspaper must be a legal newspaper; judges usually specify the Daily Washington Law Reporter. The other can be a newspaper of general circulation that you choose, such as the Washington Post, the Washington Times, or the Washington Afro-American.
- After you have received the court order granting your motion, you are responsible for making arrangements with the newspapers. Contact their classified advertisements office and explain that you need a legal notice published.
- You must provide the notice to the newspapers. Most judges will send you that notice together with the order granting your motion. If the judge does not, go to the Family Court Central Intake Center or the Family Court Self-Help Center for assistance.
How much does it cost?
Every newspaper is different. You will need to contact the newspaper to find out.
What do I do after the notice has been published?
- The newspaper will mail a notarized statement (affidavit) that the notice was published.
- If the newspaper mails the notice to you, you must file the notice at the Family Court Central Intake Center.
I can't afford to publish the notice in the newspaper. What can I do?
- You can ask the judge for permission to post the notice in the courthouse. Click here for a Motion to Serve by Publication or Posting that you can fill out on the computer. You will need to print it out and file it with the court.
- If you have already been granted a fee waiver, state that in your motion. That is usually enough to show that you cannot afford the cost of publication.
- If you have not gotten a fee waiver, you need to include an explanation of your financial circumstances in the motion. The judge will review your explanation about why you cannot afford the cost of publication and decide whether to permit posting or not.
- You will receive a copy of the judge's decision in the mail.
If the court grants permission to post the notice, what happens next?
The Family Court clerk’s office takes care of posting the notice. You may want to check on the status of posting at the Family Court Central Intake Center or the Family Court Clerk’s office. The notice is posted on a bulletin board in the Family Court Clerk's office. It must be posted for 21 calendar days.
If the court does not give permission to post the notice, what happens next?
If the judge grants permission to publish, you will have to publish the notice in the newspaper.
I don't understand why I have to do this. My spouse is not going to see the notice in the newspaper or in the courthouse.
Although it is very unlikely that your spouse will see the notice, the law requires it.
After the notice has been posted or published, what happens next?
Written proof of service must be filed. If notice was published, the newspaper will provide that documentation. If the notice was posted, the Family Court Clerk’s office will take care of this. Read Filing Proof of Service in a Divorce Case and What Happens After I Have Served the Divorce Papers on My Spouse.