How can I get a divorce if I don’t know where my spouse is?

If I’m married with a child (separated for 4 years), how do I get a divorce and establish a child support order, if I don’t know where my spouse is? (might not be in the same country)?

In Utah, where I practice divorce law, the process is as follows (it is likely similar in other jurisdictions too):

1. Prepare and file the complaint for divorce (and a few other initial required documents as part of the filing process) with the court (Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 3).

2. Make duly diligent efforts to locate your spouse you are suing for divorce. Check his/her last few last-known residential and work addresses and see if he/she is there. Check and see if he/she is staying with close family members or friends or at a boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s house. Try contacting him/her on his/her last few last-known telephone numbers and work and personal e-mail addresses he/she uses or has used in the past. Look on social media to see if that gives you any hints as to where he/she may be. Ask common friends and contacts of yours and your spouse if they know where to find your spouse. That’s a duly diligent search (Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 4(d)(5)(A)).

3. If, despite your duly diligent search, the whereabouts of your spouse are still unknown, if service is impracticable under the circumstances, or if there is good cause to believe that your spouse is avoiding service, you may file a motion to allow service by some other means. Your motion must include an affidavit or declaration describing your efforts to identify, locate, and serve your spouse, or the circumstances that make it impracticable to serve him/her. (Id.)

If your spouse is located in a foreign country, you still have to get him/her served (either personally or by alternative means), and that process is a little complex (not extremely complex, but it takes some effort). Here are two links that introduce you to that process: How to Serve a Spouse with Divorce Papers in another Countryand How to Get an International Divorce.

4. If the motion is granted, the court will order service of the complaint and summons by means reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise your spouse of the action (Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 4(d)(5)(B)). What does “means reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise” mean? Back when newspapers were so ubiquitous, it meant placing a notice in the “legal notices” section of a newspaper of general circulation in a county where your spouses was believed to be or likely to be, for 3–4 weeks. But now that far fewer people read newspapers, “means reasonably calculated to apprise” means still possibly the publication in the newspaper or a text message to the person’s last-known telephone number(s), an e-mail, a certified letter, or a post or instant message on social media, if your spouse has an active social media profile.

5. After you have filed proof of attempted alternate service with the court, if the time for publication has passed (usually at least 21 -30 days), and if your spouse has not filed a responsive pleading, he/she will be in default. You can then apply to the court for entry of default and for default judgment (Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 55 Default).

6. As long as your complaint for divorce is sworn or verified and contains all of the factual allegations and information that the court will either grant default judgment “on the pleadings” themselves or after a brief hearing in which you would appear before the court to provide the court with testimony and evidence to establish your claims.

7. If default judgment is granted, the court will either draft the documents needed to process your case to a close or ask you or your lawyer to prepare those documents: findings of fact and conclusions of law and a decree of divorce. If you sought an award of child support in your complaint for divorce and the court granted that request, your decree will contain provisions awarding you child support, along with the other relief you sought in your complaint.

And that’s it.*

* If, after entry of default against your spouse were to try to have his/her default and default judgment overturned (“set aside” is the language the court rules use), then if he/she can show the court good cause to set the default judgment aside, then it can set aside so that the case can be argued and decided on the merits of the case, instead of by default (Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 55(c)).

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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