How to Get a Divorce If You Don't Know Where Your Spouse Is

Sergey Shok

By staff
Updated Jul 08, 2024


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To be able to get a divorce, you must give legal notice to your spouse that you've filed for divorce. But what happens if you don't know how to locate your spouse?

Divorcing a missing spouse requires a few more steps, but it is possible to get a divorce in every state, even if you don't know where your spouse is.

Key Takeaways

  • Divorce papers must be served on your spouse for a case to move forward.
  • If you cannot find your spouse and have made reasonable efforts, you can ask the court for permission to do service by publication.
  • After you follow the steps for service by publication, your spouse has a certain period to respond or appear.
  • If they do not respond or appear, your divorce will proceed uncontested (sometimes called a default divorce).

Requirements for Serving Divorce Papers

Each state requires that people who are parties to a legal proceeding receive notice of the case so that they can appear and share their point of view. This is also true in divorce cases.

The person filing the divorce petition must ensure that the other spouse receives the papers in a way specified by that state's laws. This is called service of process. The most common way to serve divorce papers is for someone to hand them to your spouse.

In most states, you cannot do this yourself.

Many people hire a process server; local sheriffs will serve papers in some areas.

In some states, other methods of service are allowed, such as:

  • Certified mail
  • Handing them to another adult at the person's home or place of business
  • Attaching it to the door of their home and mailing a copy

Once the papers are served, a form called the proof of service (for example, this one from California) must be filed with the court.

This is usually a sworn statement from the person who served the papers stating that they gave them to your spouse. This shows the court that your spouse has received legal notice of the case.

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Locating Your Spouse

If you are filing for divorce and need to have your spouse served with the papers but aren't sure where to find them, here are some ideas for how to locate them:

  • Social media: Check their social media accounts to see if you can determine where they live or if you can message them to get their address
  • Mutual friends: Reach out to mutual friends to see if they might have current contact information
  • Google search: A Google search can turn up an address
  • Family: Check with their family members to see if they know where your spouse is
  • Government sites: Check to see if your spouse is in prison or the military or involved in a criminal case
  • Hospitals and shelters: They are unlikely to give you contact information but may be able to pass on a message

You could also hire a private investigator, but in most states, there is a less expensive way to serve your spouse (see below).

What to Do If You Can't Find Your Spouse to Serve Divorce Papers

If you can't find your spouse, most states allow an alternative method of service by publication in a newspaper. This is a substitute if other types of service do not work.

The reasoning is that by publishing the notice in a newspaper that is considered a newspaper of general circulation in your area, your spouse will have access to it and be able to find the notice. Practically speaking, almost no one reads those notices and it's unlikely your spouse will see it.

— Brette Sember, JD

Make Reasonable Efforts to Get in Touch with Your Spouse

Before you can apply to use service by publication, you must make diligent efforts to locate your spouse. Use all of the methods listed above. You will need to detail every step you've taken to find your spouse so that the court can see that you have tried to the best of your ability.

Serving Divorce Papers by Publication in a Newspaper

The service by publication process usually works like this:

  • Make a reasonable effort to locate your spouse.
  • If you cannot find them, you can file a motion to serve by publication with the court. List everything you have tried to find your spouse.
  • The court approves the motion and gives you instructions (which newspaper to use, what to say, how many times, and how often to publish it). For example, New York requires you to publish the notice once a week for four consecutive weeks. The notice gives your spouse a specific date to appear in court and a deadline to respond with papers.
  • You follow the instructions, publish the notice, and pay the newspaper's fee. The fee is set by the newspaper and varies. Expect to pay at least $100.
  • You then file proof of publication with the court.

Once this process is complete, your case can move forward.

Serving Divorce Papers by Posting in a Courthouse

Some states allow service by posting at the courthouse instead of or in addition to service by publication. You must make reasonable efforts to reach your spouse by other methods. If you cannot, you file a motion requesting service by posting.

If the court approves it, you then post your notice in a prescribed place in the courthouse where other legal notices are posted.

The court will detail how long it must be posted. Once the period expires, you file an affidavit stating that you posted it, and your divorce can proceed.

Default Divorce

When divorcing a missing spouse, you must first complete service by publication. If your spouse does not respond or appear in court within the time period stated in the notice, your divorce is uncontested.

This means that your spouse has no role in the case moving forward.

You must wait for the time period to respond to expire before you can do anything. If your spouse files an answer or appears in court on the specified date, your divorce moves forward as a contested divorce. You can work on settling or go on a trial.

If your spouse does not appear or respond, this is called defaulting on the divorce. The court then grants what you are asking for in the divorce as long as the judge finds it to be reasonable.

Your spouse has no opportunity to respond or present their side of the argument. The court finalizes the default divorce, and you are divorced. A Notice of Entry of Judgment is issued, ending your marriage. You are not required to send this to your spouse or publish it.

Final Thoughts

Divorcing a missing spouse might seem like an impossible task. However, service by publication allows you to file paperwork, publish a notice in a newspaper, wait the prescribed time period, and then you can move ahead with finalizing the divorce without them.

This default divorce process makes it possible to get divorced even if you have no idea how to reach your spouse.

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