How To Serve Divorce Papers

Once you've decided to get a divorce, you may be wondering how to serve divorce papers on your spouse.

By WomansDivorce | Answers by Brette Sember, J.D.

To begin with, the initial paperwork is called a divorce petition or summons, and it outlines all the important information about your marriage and what is being asked for in the divorce. This paperwork needs to be filed with the proper court, usually in the county where the filing spouse resides.

The next step is to have divorce papers served on your spouse. This lets your spouse know that papers have been filed at the courthouse to start the divorce process. It also lets them know what is being asked for and how much time they have to respond. 

For the divorce to actually proceed, the court will need proof that your spouse was served with the petition. If you have a lawyer handling your divorce, he or she will probably take care of all this for you.  

Methods of Serving Divorce Papers

If you are doing the paperwork yourself, below is a description on how to serve divorce papers, and how proof of service is obtained:

1. Acceptance of Service: The paperwork is personally delivered to your spouse, by someone over the age of 18 (and not your child). You must get your spouse to sign and date the Acceptance of Service paper to verify that the petition was actually received.

2. Serving Divorce Papers by Mail: The petition can be mailed First Class, along with an acknowledgment form that your spouse will need to sign, date, and mail back to you. The divorce petition may also be mailed by Certified mail, return receipt requested. This method requires that your spouse sign a paper that is attached to the envelope when he receives the petition in the mail. This “return receipt” is then mailed back to you after it is signed, and will serve as proof of service.

3. Serving Divorce Papers by Sheriff or Process Server: You can hire a Sheriff or professional process server to deliver your divorce petition. A proof of service form will be filled out by the person serving the petition, which will then be filed with the court.

4. Serving Divorce Papers by Publication: When all other methods fail, the court will allow service to be made by publication. This involves announcing the divorce petition in a newspaper where your spouse is likely to be living for a specified amount of time. You will need to return a copy of the newspaper notice, with a statement for how long the notice ran, to the court for proof of service.

5. Waiver of Service: In some states when an uncontested divorce petition is filed, spouses can waive their right to be personally served by signing a Waiver of Service. This acknowledgement must be signed and notarized before it is filed with the court. It’s important to note that you should only sign this waiver if your divorce is amicable and both spouse’s mutually agree on everything. Before signing a Waiver of Service, you should carefully review it to make sure you’re not waiving any of your other rights.

FAQs on how to serve divorce papers

If you have specific questions about how to serve divorce papers, the following questions answered by our legal expert provide additional information:

Do I need to have divorce papers served on him?

Jaimee's Question: Currently, my husband and I are separated and he lives in another state. He tells me to send him the divorce papers and he'll sign them, but he never does. I'm broke. Do I have to go through the cost of having him served or is there a length of time where it is just ended?

Brette's Answer: A marriage can never just end on its own. If he won't sign an agreement, then you do need to have him served. Service isn't that expensive - you should be able to get it done for under $40 if you find someone in his local area to do it. Once you have him served and he fails to respond, you can move ahead with the divorce.

Will I get served if he uses an online divorce service?

Laura's Question: If my husband files for an "uncontested" divorce using an online company like LegalZoom, will I get served with divorce papers? How would I know if he has filed with a service such as this?

Brette's Answer: For a divorce to be valid, he must follow your state laws regarding service, unless you sign something waiving service. You must receive notice of the case against you.

How long does it take for divorce papers to be served?

Angela's Question: How long does it take before I get served with divorce papers? My husband told me that he has worked with his lawyer on Monday and it has been a week.

Brette's Answer: Rules are different in every state. Check your state court web site for information. But it can take a while. The attorney has to prepare the papers, your husband has to approve them and they need to be served on you. Give it a couple of weeks.

Who can serve divorce papers on him?

Crystal's Question: Who can serve the divorce forms to my spouse? What are requirements?

Brette's Answer: Many people hire professional process servers who know exactly how to do it right and complete the paperwork. In most states you can have anyone do it. Check your state laws on service of process to be certain.

What happens if I refuse the service of divorce papers?

Angela's Question: He wants a divorce and we don't have anything to separate or any minor kids. What happens if I refuse to accept papers or dodge the service?

Brette's Answer: If you refuse to accept service, there are other methods available the court can order and you may not receive notice about the court date and miss it. I suggest you talk to an attorney. If there is nothing to divide and no children, your divorce should be simple and inexpensive.

What happens after you serve divorce papers?

Barbara's Question: What happens next after your husband has been served and his lawyer calls your lawyer? Do you go to court? Do the lawyers go to court? Do you have a meeting?

Brette's Answer: Generally your husband has to file an answer or response. In most cases, the attorney will try to meet to work things out. There is generally a meeting held at court, with the judge or judge's assistant to try to encourage settlement and move things along. A trial date is scheduled and before trial happens, discovery takes place. Throughout all of this, the attorneys try to settle. (You can read more about this by reading through the Steps of Divorce). Good luck.

How are divorce papers considered officially served?

Tamara's Question: Are the divorce papers considered officially served, if they were served by the official requirements, but then after the server walked away, the papers were returned to the petitioner who was nearby?

Brette's Answer: Service is generally accomplished when the server makes the delivery according to state statute. The server generally has to file an affidavit indicating when and where service occurred and this completes the requirements. What the person does with the papers after the service would not have any bearing on it.

My friends tell me I can't be divorced if I was never served.

Debbie's Question: I was married 25 years ago. My husband abandoned me two years after we married and moved out of state. I had the same job and lived at the same address for the next 8 years. I finally looked him up and talked to him over the phone. I wanted to know if we ever divorced so that I could get a copy of my divorce decree just in case I ever wanted to remarry. He told me that he had divorced me in GA, but has not been able to supply me with the divorce decree. My friends tell me I can't have a divorce without ever being served. If this is true, when I do divorce him, is it based on his assets now or then (when he had nothing)?

Brette's Answer: You have to be served. It's possible he told the court he couldn't locate you and a divorce could have been granted using publication. You can check the records of the courts in the counties he lived in to be sure. If not, you're still married. Assets are divided as of date of separation, so it would be a simple divorce.

I'm afraid to personally serve him the divorce papers.

Lauri's Question: I have been separated from my abusive husband for over 8 years now and he has left the state. Our children are grown and there is no real property to fight over in the divorce. But I am very afraid to try to find him to get him served. Is there anything that can be done after this long of a gap between the abuse and my finally getting the courage to end it?

Brette's Answer: You don't have to serve him yourself. Service is done by a process server. If you don't know where he is, you can ask the court to allow you to do service by publication where you publish a notice in a newspaper and it constitutes legal service. 

Will I have to re-file if I personally served him and he didn't respond?

Paulette's Question: I filed for a motion to modify and I handed him a copy of the filed petition 2 months ago. He never filed a response and I have no proof that I gave him the papers. Do I have to re-file, or can I just have them sent certified mail to his house as proof, even though 60 days has past.

Brette's Answer: You need to have proof of legal service to move forward. You need to determine what the service requirements are in your state and make sure he is served according to them and that you have legal proof of the service.

Can I proceed with divorce if the process server is unable to serve him?

Marrilyn's Question: I hired a process server in the state my husband now lives in. They have tried numerous attempts without success to serve him. Will the process server's affidavit of this be sufficient? Do I wait to submit it to the court on the hearing date?

Brette's Answer: No, there has to be actual service of some kind, so if he can't be personally served, he'll need to be served by another method.

Can I just give him the papers if the court was unable to serve him?

Kimberly's Question: I filed for divorce and had a court date. When I went to court, the judge told me that they couldn't serve him because he couldn't be found. Can I get a copy of the original divorce papers and have someone to serve him? If he signs the papers and gets his part notarized and returns the papers to me, could I then turn them in to the court?

Brette's Answer: No. You need to follow your state's service requirements which are very specific about how papers must be served. You can check your state court web site for details, or hire a process server who will be able to follow the law.

Can someone else sign for legally served papers?

Beth's Question: I need to serve my spouse with divorce papers but the only legal address that he is using is his Aunt's house. If I have a process server deliver the paperwork there can the Aunt sign for them or does my spouse have to? And if the Aunt can sign for them does that mean he has been served?

Brette's Answer: Generally personal service means personal service - the person who the papers are addressed to must accept them. There are other types of service allowable, but the rules vary from state to state, so check your state rules to understand what is permissible in your state. You can also call a local process server and ask them.

Is it possible to serve documents to his lawyer?

Theresa's Question: My ex is always on the go with work and I have no idea where he currently works either. Is it possible to serve documents to his lawyer?

Brette's Answer: You can usually do so only if the attorney agrees to accept service. If not, you need to hire a process server who can do service within your state law requirements.

How can I get his address if I only know his phone number?

Eva's Question: I want a divorce, but I only have my husband's phone number. What should I do if the forms require his address?

Brette's Answer: I believe there are web sites where you can enter a phone number and get an address. If you can't figure it out on your own, a good process server will be able to.

How do I serve divorce papers if I only know his work address?

Raine's Question: I need to serve divorce papers on my husband, but I only know his work address. Can I mail divorce papers to him, in care of the company he works for, or is there another method of service I must use?

Brette's Answer: You can either hire a process server (quite inexpensive) or check your state laws about service.

How do I serve divorce papers if he's an over the road trucker?

Jennifer's Question: My husband is a truck driver, and he's on the road a lot, and doesn't have an address. How would I serve him papers?

Brette's Answer: Service by publication is one method. There are other methods available - you'll need to check your state laws or talk to a professional process server.

How can I serve papers if I don't know where he is?

Maria's Question: I have been separated for about 10 months and I am ready to file for divorce. I don't know where my husband currently lives, and I have absolutely no contact with his friends and family. How do I have him served with the divorce summons if I don't know where he is?

Brette's Answer: If your husband can't be found there are alternative methods of service available. You will need to ask the court for permission to do service by publication most likely. Each state has its own specific requirements for this - you publish the notice in a paper chosen by the court. You can then be able to move forward with the divorce without him. Good luck.

How do I get started with the service by publication?

Rebecca's Question: I have filed for divorce and the local sheriff has been trying to serve the papers but we are unable to locate him. How do I publish the divorce in the newspaper?

Brette's Answer: You usually need a court order to be able to serve by publication. Contact the court clerk to find out how to proceed.

Is there a certain paper I have to use for service by publication?

Question: I'm going to go through the channels of serving my husband through publication and I was wondering what paper should I put it in? Is there a certain paper I have to put it in?

Brette's Answer: The court dictates which paper. Generally you need permission to serve in this manner.

How do I serve him by publication if I don't know where he is?

Han's Question: My husband left me without saying anything and settled in the US. I have filed a divorce petition, and we tried searching him but could not find him. We could not summon him through postal notice and we have permission to summon him through newspaper publication. I don't have much idea about USA newspapers, can you suggest any daily national newspaper which can publish this notice.

Brette's Answer: Try USA Today. It's really the only national newspaper. There are other papers that are local in nature but are read widely throughout the country like the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, etc.

What if he doesn't pick up the divorce papers sent via mail service?

Marci's Question: If divorce papers were sent via mail, and he did not pick them up, how do I go about getting him served? What steps do I need to take?

Brette's Answer: You simply have another set of them served personally on him. You can hire a process server or read your state personal service laws and get a friend or relative to perform the service for you.

What if the post office lost the divorce papers I sent through the mail?

Leona's Question: I filed for divorce two months ago. The papers were mailed certified as instructed, but the post office has lost them. Can I resend another copy or do I need to re-file and pay the fees again?

Brette's Answer: You need to check with the court clerk's office to determine the status of the case and what steps you need to take to move it along.

Do I have to personally serve him if mail service didn't work?

Sarah's Question: I served papers to my spouse where they wrote to me and said they would accept service. It came back because they weren't there. Now I got an email saying they can be sent to another location, but demanding that they be served and not just mailed. Do I have to honor that? I really can't afford to try and serve papers again and then it comes back bogus again.

Brette's Answer: If I were you, I would just have the documents served on him personally and be done with it.

How can I serve divorce papers if my husband is in jail?

Angelica's Question: How do I serve my husband if my husband is in jail?

Brette: You'll need to obtain the inmate number (call the jail and have his SS#). You then have process served by a sheriff or private process server. You can't use certified mail since the inmate cannot sign for it.

Can he contest the divorce if papers are served while he's in prison?

Kisha's Question: My husband is incarcerated. Could he contest the divorce if papers are served to him in prison? If so, does this cost more money?

Brette's Answer: Yes he can contest the divorce and unfortunately some prisoners do this to give them a chance to leave the prison to appear in court. Service may cost a bit more to a prison.

Do divorce papers served and signed for in jail need to be notarized?

R's Question: If I serve my husband in jail with the divorce papers and he signs them, do the papers have to be notarized? Or can I just go ahead and file in the state that I live in now, and will his signature satisfy the court?

Brette: You need to check the court web site to find out what the requirements are, which are different in every state.

How do I get the paperwork started if he lives in another country?

Suzan's Question: My husband is a legal resident of another country, while I am a US citizen. Neither of us can travel to the other country for divorce proceedings and he will not sign papers to file here. How do we go about getting a divorce?

Brette's Answer: You should consult with an attorney about your state's requirements, but in general, you would just file and have to give him notice. You need to have your husband served in a legally binding way that will show the court he received the papers and chose not to answer. When he doesn't show up in court the case proceeds without him. Find an attorney experienced in international divorce to help you with your case.

How can I get divorced if he's in another country and I can't contact him?

Carrie's Question: My husband was deported years ago. I filed for divorce by sending the papers to the last address that I know he had a few months ago and have not heard anything back. I talked to the courts here in USA and they said they cannot do anything unless I give the proof that he was served. What can I do now?

Brette Answers: You should be able to do service by publication. You need to file a petition with the court stating you don't your spouse's whereabouts and you will be allowed to serve notice by publishing in a newspaper. Check your state court web site or talk to an attorney in your area.

Can I throw him out after he's served divorce papers?

Shirley's Question: I just had the sheriff serve my husband divorce papers. Can I legally remove his clothes and stuff from the house? If not, what can I do to get him out of the house?

Brette's Answer: Just because he's been served with papers doesn't mean you automatically have exclusive rights to the marital residence. If he won't leave, you can seek a court order.

Copyright | Updated February 24, 2023

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