What to Do When the Other Party Has Disappeared

Any lawsuit, whether in family law or another area of civil law, must begin the same way. A complaint or petition is filed with the appropriate court and then the papers must be properly served on the defendant.  (In family law cases, the defendant is referred to as the respondent.) Usually the papers are served by “personal service,” which means that the respondent is the one to be handed the papers by a law enforcement officer or private process server. However, especially in divorces when the parties have long separated, it is not uncommon for the petitioner to not know where the respondent is located. Washington law makes special provisions for serving the respondent when the petitioner does not know where he or she is. These special provisions are for “substituted service.”

Substitute service may be accomplished in two ways. The first is by mail and the second is by publication. Before substitute service is allowed, the petitioner must ask permission from the court. The petitioner needs to be able to demonstrate that he or she has made due diligent efforts to locate the respondent. In the case of a divorce or child custody case, this often means attempting to contact the respondent at his or her last known address and place of employment. The petitioner also should consider contacting other family members and searching social media for clues to the respondent’s location. The petitioner needs to make a sincere effort at trying to locate the respondent. A judge will not allow substitute service if he or she believes the petitioner was not really putting forward the best effort to find the respondent.

Once the judge approves the request for substitute service, the petitioner may request that it be done by mail or by publication. By mail means that the petitioner will mail the papers both by regular and by certified mail with return receipt requested to the respondent’s last known address and to any other address ordered by the commissioner or judge. If the service is to be done by publication, a legal notice with specific wording must be run in the legal notices section of a newspaper in the place where the respondent was last known to reside, for a specific amount of time.

Once the petitioner serves the respondent by mail or publication, after waiting for a set amount of time, the petitioner may return to court and ask for a default judgment. This means that the petitioner will receive the divorce and most if not all of the requests made in the papers by default, given that the respondent will likely not show up at the final hearing to protest.

Completing a divorce or custody case when the respondent is nowhere to be found is a complicated process with many technical requirements. Our team has extensive experience in accomplishing our clients’ goals in such a situation. Call us today at (253) 272-9459 for an appointment to talk about your case.