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How do I serve my spouse divorce paperwork in Washington if my spouse is avoiding service?

In the ideal world, you could file for divorce, email a copy of the petition and summons to your spouse, go to court, and start the process.

Unfortunately, the service of process part of the divorce is not that easy.  In Washington, you must personally serve the divorce documents on your spouse.  That means, you need to hand-deliver the documents to your spouse.

But by “you,” the law doesn't actually mean you personally.  The person who serves legal documents must be over the age 18 and cannot be a party to the lawsuit. 

My spouse is avoiding service.  How can I serve her?

If your spouse is avoiding service, you can file a motion with the Court to authorize service by mail or service by publication.  These types of service are known as substitute service. 

Service by mail means you can mail your documents to your opposing spouse's last known address—assuming you and your spouse have separated and she is living someplace else. 

Service by publication means you have one of the major newspapers in the county in which you live run an ad with a copy of the divorce summons and petition for six (6) consecutive weeks.  After the sixth week, your spouse is deemed to have been legally “served by publication.”

(I do not recommend service by publication.  It is difficult and expensive.  It may be necessary, but you should use this as a last resort). 

How can I prove that my spouse is avoiding service?

Before a Washington court will authorize service by mail (i.e. substitute service), you have to prove that you made “diligent efforts” to locate your spouse. 

What do diligent efforts mean?  This means you have to follow-up on all information that you have and all information that is reasonably available to you in locating your spouse.

  • Is your husband staying with a friend?  If you know the friend's email address, send him an email, shoot him a text, or contact him on social media.
  • Is your wife close with her parents?  Contact your in-laws and ask them where she might be staying?  (Of course, your in-laws probably won't be cooperative, but getting results is not the key to establishing diligent efforts. What matters is you making the effort). 
  • Where does your spouse work?  Send a process server to his place of employment and try to locate him or her there.

Don't ignore the obvious.  If you have an attorney, ask your attorney to email your spouse, and ask him whether he or she will agree to accept service by email.  Of course, your spouse will not likely respond, but now you have made the effort.  And to avoid the risk that your spouse may later claim he or she didn't receive the email, send the email with read-receipt or delivery-receipt, which will generate a return email confirming service.

Also, perhaps even more obvious, call your spouse, text your spouse, message your spouse on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram, ask for their address, and tell them you are beginning the divorce process and need to serve paperwork.

Keep a detailed record of what efforts you made.  When you file a motion to authorize service by mail, you will need to include an affidavit that explains each effort you made to locate your spouse. 

If your affidavit is not detailed enough, the court will deny your motion.  Err on the side of too much detail.  A court will penalize you for including too much information but will penalize you for including too little/.

The Court authorized service by mail.  How do I serve divorce papers via mail?  

Service by mail is not as easy as it sounds.  It's not simply a matter of putting an envelope in the mail and you're done.

You have to follow certain steps, and these steps are found in CR 4(d)(4), which is a superior court rule governing service of process in family law cases. 

  • You must mail one copy of the summons and complaint by ordinary first-class mail to the defendant's last known address.
  • You must mail a second copy of the summons and complaint certified mail, return receipt requested, to the defendant's last known address.  

How long does my spouse have to respond if I serve by mail?

If you serve the defendant by mail, the defendant has 90 days from the date of mailing to answer the complaint. Note that the defendant has more far time to respond when served by mail than with personal service (90 days vs. 20 days).

How do I serve divorce papers outside the United States

If your spouse lives in a foreign country, you will most likely 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.    

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