How to Serve Divorce Papers On Your Spouse

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Even if you’ve never been divorced before and haven’t had any legal troubles, you’ve probably heard the phrase “you’ve been served.” In the legal context, it simply means that some sort of paperwork was delivered to a person (often face to face), so there is no doubt that they received it. And in the context of divorce, this paperwork is typically the complaint for divorce, along with a summons, served on one of the spouses by the other. Let’s talk more about how serving your spouse works in Maryland, what kind of arrangements you need to make and what to do if you can’t locate your spouse.


Standard Methods of Service

There are several ways to serve your spouse with the complaint for divorce and the Writ of Summons, assuming you know where they live, work or can be found. However, you can’t serve the papers personally—it has to be done through a third party, such as:

By Sheriff

When you are filing your papers with your county’s circuit court, you can ask the clerk about the Sheriff’s availability and fees. If this arrangement works for you, you can leave your papers there for the Sheriff to serve to your spouse. Upon completion, the Sheriff will provide the court with the “return of service,” which serves as a proof that your spouse received the paperwork.

By Private Process

Of course, you can always hire any private process service company instead of using the Sheriff. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a company—your friend or relative could do this too, as long as they are 18 or older. But they will have to serve the papers face to face—leaving them on a doorstep won’t count. No matter which private party you use, at the end they should provide you with the Affidavit of Service that proves they did their job.

By Certified Mail

If your spouse lives far away, you could either hire a process service company in their area or send the paperwork by certified mail, restricted delivery. This method requires the postman to hand-deliver the envelope to your spouse and collect their signature on the receipt. However, there is no guarantee that your mail will be delivered, and the postman definitely won’t take as much effort to find your spouse as a process service company would. If you decide to send via certified mail, be sure to request restricted delivery and return service in case your mail can’t be delivered. Keep a record and evidence of all failed delivery attempts—you may need them later!

Keep in mind that the divorce process can’t move forward until your spouse is served. If you want things to move faster, hiring a private party or a Sheriff will probably be your best bet. It’s always easier when you are working with an experienced Maryland divorce attorney. We can help you get your divorce paperwork in order, as well as make arrangements for serving your spouse and advise you on alternative methods.

Alternative Service Methods

If you are unable to serve your spouse with the traditional methods we described above, you may file a Motion for Alternative Service. If granted, the court will allow you to use other means to serve your spouse. As you are filing for this motion, you should include an affidavit explaining everything you’ve done so far in efforts to locate and serve your spouse, which may include things like:

  • Reaching out to friends and family of the spouse
  • Contacting the last known employer
  • Searching MVA and police records
  • Checking forwarding address at the post office
  • Hiring a private investigator
  • Conducting online research
  • Monitoring their social media activity

If your Motion for Alternative Service is approved, you may be allowed to serve your spouse by:

Publishing Summons in a Newspaper

Most local newspapers have a legal notice department that handles alternative service requests. You will need to choose a newspaper circulating in the area of your spouse’s last known address. Then you can pay the newspaper to publish the Writ of Summons page from your complaint for divorce. At the same time, you should mail the paperwork to your spouse’s last known address (make sure to request return service). Keep a copy of the publication and any returned mail and file them with the circuit court. You may later use this to request an order of default that allows you to proceed with the divorce, even though your spouse is nowhere to be found.

You may also be required to serve your spouse via email, or by posting a notice on their door. However, if you have no idea where your spouse is, publishing summons in the newspaper could be your last resort.

If you have any questions about serving your spouse in Maryland or getting started with your divorce process, contact our Owings Mills family law attorneys for a consultation!

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