As all of my clients know, finding someone to serve their spouses is not at all necessary in a low-cost, simple, uncontested, no-fault divorce. As long as your spouse signs the appropriate documents in that type of divorce, you will not need to find – or pay – anyone to serve (as in handing Court documents to) your spouse.
Nonetheless, there has been a lot of interest generated on the topic of who can serve divorce papers in Pennsylvania. I have been wondering for some time now who the folks are who are so interested in this topic. I know they are not my clients because in their cases, all that is needed from their spouses are the spouses’ signatures. I have discussed this several times with colleagues and the only idea with which we have come up is those who are interested in getting their spouses served must be involved in “do-it-yourself” divorce actions. I have written about the hazards of trying to represent yourself elsewhere here on my website. Accordingly, I will not repeat that information here.
The Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure make it clear that any adult who is not related to either party and not an employee of either party may serve divorce documents in a Pennsylvania divorce action. Also, a spouse may not serve the other spouse (but a spouse may lawfully obtain the other spouse’s signature on appropriately-prepared – that is, prepared by an experienced attorney – divorce documents).
Many lawyers, out of habit or even loyalty, still use a constable (or, even more expensively, a sheriff’s deputy) to go out, find the defendant spouse and hand the divorce documents to that spouse. Then the paid server – paid with your money, of course – is required to complete and provide a proof of service or a return of service, or, as sometimes happens, a return of “not served” with the details and numbers of the attempts at service and why service was not made. If there is a return of “not served”, and more than 30 days have passed (90 days if the defendant spouse is outside of Pennsylvania), a re-instatement must be filed and, yes, there is a cost involved in that. Then there is another 30 (or 90) day period to try to serve the defendant spouse again.
Also to be considered is the fact that it is quite simple for the defendant spouse to avoid being served, especially if the server is seen approaching the defendant’s home. The defendant must open the door to be served. The server is not permitted to open even a screen door. Or, of course, the defendant can simply not answer the door. If a defendant is avoiding being served, you, the plaintiff spouse in the divorce action, may have to do some investigating to determine a time and place where your spouse can be found where your spouse cannot “hide”, such as at work or a restaurant, bar or the site of another activity such as a sports or music event. Paying the server to do this investigating is possible in some instances, but it is dreadfully expensive.
A worse case scenario is when the defendant is impossible to serve because the defendant’s whereabouts are concealed or unknown or the defendant is simply able to avoid being served. At that point, the Rules of Court provide for doing a “Good Faith Investigation” and the requesting a “Special Order of Court” be issued, your having satisfied the Court that your spouse, despite an exhaustive, extensive, diligent and detailed search, cannot be found. That search is a lot of work. Relatives, friends, acquaintances, past and present employers and co-workers, various government departments such as Social Security, Transportation (for driver’s license and vehicle registration information), voting records etc. may all have to be contacted and the responses and non-responses all documented, assembled into the appropriate Court Affidavit of Diligent Search and presented to the correct Judge for review and possible additional search instructions. Bear in mind that the Court does not take lightly the allegation that your spouse cannot be found. Over the years, numerous divorce plaintiffs, knowing their spouses would contest, have lied to the Court while knowing exactly where their spouses were. After the search is completed to the Court’s satisfaction, the Judge is likely to order that Legal Notices be put in two newspapers serving the area where the defendant was last known to be, one of general circulation and the other the one serving the local legal community.
The last time I performed all of those services for a client was about 35 years ago. I cannot recall what my fees were but I remember that the two newspapers charged $1800.00. (Those ads are quite wordy and take a lot of column-inches in a paper.) My client paid around $4000.00 in total and I got him the divorce; however, I resolved to not accept such cases in the future, but to help clients obtain their spouses signatures, something that can be done without an address, with proper and knowledgeable legal advice and some effort by the client.
If you are looking for help serving your spouse and have a lot of time and money to spend on doing so, their are plenty of full-service law firms eager to offer what you will need. Alternatively, maybe my $219.00 divorce service could make more sense than the “DIY” process… a process which often leads to frustration, too much time, too much money and no divorce.