How to serve your divorce papers

It’s your responsibility to tell the court how you want your divorce papers "served," that is, delivered to your spouse. It’s also your responsibility to follow up if service is unsuccessful or refused. 

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When you file for divorce, you have to let your spouse know. It’s not enough to tell them, email them or even write them a letter about your plans. Instead, you must notify them with official court documents. This is what it means to have them "served."

Instructions for Service form

When you file for divorce, you will need to go to the clerk of court's office or website to get all the right paperwork. There will be a lot of forms for you to fill out. Among the forms is one called "Instructions for Service." 

Learn about how to file for divorce when you have children and how to file for divorce if you don't have children.  

You are responsible for:

  • Filling out a form letting the court know exactly how you want to have your spouse served
  • Following up with the court to see if service was successful or not 

Most people use certified mail

The least expensive option for having the court serve your spouse is by certified mail, with a return receipt. 

You can also ask the court to have the sheriff serve your spouse. This option will cost you money. Depending on where you live, it could be a lot. But if your spouse is abusive, you should consider this option. Learn more about how to protect yourself from an abusive spouse. 

What if you don't know your spouse's address and can't find it by searching online, talking to relatives or any other way? It's possible to do something called "serve by posting," but this can be expensive and often makes it more complicated for you to get a divorce. Get advice from a lawyer if this option seems necessary. 

Follow up with the clerk

In about a month, call the clerk’s office and give them your case number. Ask if your spouse has been served. If they were, plan on attending your hearing as scheduled. If they weren’t, it could be that you have the wrong address. It could also be that service was refused.

If the mail is returned as “Addressee Unknown” or “Insufficient Address,” find out what address your spouse is using. Use every resource that you can, including Google and social media. Then you’ll need to file a new "Instructions for Service" form and request certified mail to the new address.

If service is refused or unclaimed, you’ll have to go to the clerk’s office again and fill out another "Instructions for Service" form. This time, request service by regular mail instead of certified mail. 

Wait another month. Then call the clerk and make sure the papers were sent out. If they were, you don’t need to do anything else except prepare for your hearing. If they weren’t, ask the clerk why and request that they send it again.

If the court can’t serve your spouse at all, you will have to ask the clerk to reschedule your hearing. Once you have been given a new date and time, you can repeat the same steps above. But you might be better off having the paperwork delivered by certified mail to their place of employment, or spending the extra money for service by sheriff. 

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