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How do I serve divorce papers in Washington State?

How do I serve my spouse with divorce paperwork?

In Washington, there are two main types of service: personal service and constructive service.

Personal service works exactly how you probably think it works.  Your spouse is hand-delivered copies of the summons and divorce petition. This could be at her home, or work, or at a public park.  Personal service is the ideal, because it's the most clean cut.

A big caveat, however.  You cannot personally give the documents to your spouse.  In Washington, anyone over the age of 18 who is of sound mind and is not a party to the case can personally serve legal documents.  Because you are a party to your own divorce, you are out. 

After personal service, constructive service is the next best option.  Constructive service means your process server or your friend brings your divorce paperwork to your spouse's home and leaves them with a resident of “suitable age and discretion.”  This is a fancy legal term for basically anyone who can understand the significance of what is happening. 

Example #1Your process server gives a copy of the summons and petition to your spouse's live-in girlfriend.  This is proper service.

Example #2Your process server gives a copy of the summons and petition to your spouse's 10-year-old child.  This is not proper service.  A 10-year-old is too young to understand the legal significance of a divorce. 

Example #3Your process server gives a copy of the summons and petition to your spouse's former college roommate who is staying there for a few weeks.  This is not proper service.  Only people who reside with your spouse can accept constructive service. 

If you cannot accomplish service through personal service or substitute service, then your spouse is likely avoiding service and will have to court to request service by mail, a more difficult process.  

Can I serve divorce papers myself?

No.  Only a non-party to the case who is over the age of 18 can serve divorce papers under Washington law.

Do I have to hire a process server to serve divorce papers on my spouse?

Legally, no.  Practically, you probably should.  

Under Washington law, anyone over the age of 18 who is not a party to a case can initiate service of process on an opposing party.  That means you could ask your friend or a family member or even a work colleague to go to your spouse's house or workplace and give the documents to him or her.

This is easier said than done, however.  What if your spouse refuses?  What if he or she gets in a fight with your friend or family member and causes a scene in public?  What if your friend gets startled and forgets to hand your spouse all the paperwork?  Without proper service, you end up making a stressful divorce process even more stressful, and it hasn't even started.

My recommendation – spend the $130 – 150 and hire a professional to do the job right.

How do I serve divorce papers outside the United States

If your spouse lives in a foreign country, you will have to comply with The Hague Service Convention, an international treaty.

In some countries, like Canada, you may be able to work directly with an international process server.  In other countries, you will have to contact the government directly.  The process is time-consuming, detail-oriented, and potentially very costly.  

This is because you have to navigate Washington law, federal law, and international law, and understand the interplay between all three.

Can I email a copy of my divorce petition to my spouse?

No, unless your spouse agrees to be served by email. 

This might seem surprising, given how prevalent email is today and given how much more wary we are of in-person contact, having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In Washington, you cannot effect service of process via email.  You also cannot effect service of process via fax.  You may not like it, but that's the law. 

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