How do I serve divorce papers on my spouse when I don’t know where they live?

This is especially a problem when spouses have been separated for a substantial period of time, and there has been little to no communication between them.  I often hear that one spouse only knows that the other lives in (Boston, Manchester, the County. . . .)  If you need to serve the other person with papers, for example, divorce or parental rights documents, this can pose to be a difficult hurdle.  You need to give notice to, or “serve” your spouse.  There is no way around this.  You will need to know in what geographical region (city or county) you spouse is in, or the last known address.

A fundamental requirement of due process (14th Amendment) requires that all parties to a legal action have reasonable notice of the proceeding or legal action, and that they are afforded the opportunity to present their objections.

At the beginning of every divorce case, the spouse who files for divorce (the “plaintiff”) must “serve” your spouse (“defendant”) with notice of the impending divorce action.  You must provide proof to the court that the other spouse has received notice (i.e., been served).

Reasonable efforts.  You must make every reasonable effort to notify/serve your spouse:

  • attempting service by Mail
  • attempting Service by Certified or Registered Mail
  • having a Deputy Sheriff attempt Service
  • checking with public databases (phone book, tax records, voting rolls) and private sources (relatives, neighbors, employers)

In most cases this isn’t a problem, but sometimes, after you separate, you simply cannot locate the defendant.  If you have made all reasonable efforts, but still cannot find the defendant, the court may let you do “Service by Alternative Means.”

Service by Alternative Means.  “Alternative means” of service can be complicated.  I recommend that you get help from a lawyer if you can afford it.  If you cannot afford a lawyer, hopefully you can speak with a volunteer lawyer at the CourtHouse Assistance Project “CHAP”.

Methods.  There are several methods of “Alternative Service:”

Service by another means not prohibited by law.  Court permission is required.  The Court may allow you to serve your spouse in a way that will most likely provide them with actual notice.  This may include service by electronic means.

Service by publication.  Court permission is required.  This is the last option.  You will need to pick a newspaper that the other party will most likely see.  This means that you will need to provide some location where the defendant is, or the last known address.  The Order will be published in that newspaper once a week for three consecutive weeks.

Fee Waiver.  You may be financially eligible to have the service fees waived by the court.

If you can’t afford the fee, you can file your papers with the court first, along with your fee waiver application.  Explain in your application why you need to use Service by Sheriff.  If the court approves your application, the court will pay for the cost of Sheriff Service.