Divorce papers, like complaints or summons in any other legal proceeding, must be properly served in order for a court to entertain the case. The rules governing service of process — including who can serve, what exactly must be served, and the timing of the service — is dictated by local court rules. Different jurisdictions require different things. Most of the time, service must be in person, and must be handled by someone who is not party to the case. Before deciding how you will serve divorce papers, it is a good idea to be sure that your plans comport with the governing rules.
In most cases, there is no single “right way” to serve divorce papers. Most jurisdictions set out service of process rules in their statutory codes, usually providing several options and contingencies. The preference is almost always service-in-hand, but many codes make provisions for service by mail, as well. Service by publication and even service by e-mail can be allowed in some circumstances, but these methods are rarely acceptable as a means to serve divorce papers. Divorce is generally considered among the most sensitive of the lawsuits a court may handle, and accurate and timely service is essential to each party being treated fairly. Although many rules are flexible, they are still rules, and failing to follow them exactly can lead to delays and sometimes also administrative fines.
Divorce is typically a matter of state or local concern. In larger countries like the United States and Canada, the specific rules governing how to serve divorce papers are handed down by local authorities. Local rules are based on national statutory schemes, but have been adapted. Smaller countries like the United Kingdom typically have but one universal code governing how to serve papers in a divorce.
There are very few jurisdictions that permit personal service by someone who is a party to the case. This means that one spouse cannot personally serve the other with divorce petition papers, even if the divorce is uncontested. Determining who is allowed to serve the papers is usually a more difficult inquiry.
In some jurisdictions, divorce papers must be served by a court official. Other times, a certified process server must be hired for the job, while some courts will permit anyone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case — a neighbor, for instance, or a coworker — to serve divorce papers. Certified mail service can also be acceptable, particularly in cases where parties live in different states and have mutually agreed to the divorce. It all depends on the court, the rules, and the facts of the case.
Most of the time, a court’s rules for serving divorce papers are available, either online or in hard copy, from the courthouse where the divorce papers will ultimately be filed. It is a good idea to request a copy of the service rules when obtaining the divorce petition papers in the first place. One of the benefits of hiring a lawyer to handle your divorce is that the lawyer then becomes responsible for orchestrating effective service. Representation is never mandatory in a divorce, but it can be helpful, particularly where service is concerned.