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How to Serve the Opposing Party in Your Family Law Case

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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3201EN - When you file a family law case, you must make sure that a copy of the petition, summons, and other papers you are filing are delivered to the person you are filing the case against "the other party" in a legally correct way.

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Why do I have to serve the other party?

When you file a family law case, you must make sure you have a copy of the petition, summons, and other papers you are filing delivered to the person you are filing the case against ("the other party") in a legally correct way.  We call this having the other party "served." 

The other party has a legal right to receive a copy of the papers you file.  The judge will not make any rulings on your case until you can provide proof that the other party got copies of your court papers.

There are three different ways you can have the papers served: 

  • personal service

  • service by mail

  • service by publication    

In Washington, you must always try to have the other party personally served with the paperwork.  If – and only if -- you absolutely cannot get the other party personally served, you can ask for court permission to serve him/her by either mail or publication.

What is personal service?

Someone (age 18 or older) besides you must hand-deliver the papers to the other party, or to someone of suitable age living at the other party's home.  The person who delivers the papers is your "server."   You can get a friend to do this free, or you can pay a server.

You do not need court permission to do personal service. Personal service is usually the cheapest way to get the other party served.

*Have the other party personally served in all cases where possible.

Keep track of everything you do to try and get the other party personally served. You may be unsuccessful and need to ask for court permission to serve by mail or publication. 

What is service by mail?

*You need court permission before you can try to serve by mail. 

You should find someone to mail the paperwork for you.  They will need to mail two copies of the papers to the other party:  

  • one by regular mail

  • one by certified mail, return receipt requested

What is service by publication?

You need court permission before you can try to serve by publication.  This method of serving costs the most. It may be the least likely to reach the other party.  You should ask permission to serve the other party by publication only as a last resort, if you cannot get a court order allowing you to serve by mail.

If a judge later decides the service by mail or publication was improper (example:  because the judge does not believe you tried hard enough to find the other party), s/he can cancel all your court orders, even years later.

How can I find the other party for personal service?

You must make an honest and reasonable search to try to find the other party for personal service.  Follow up on any information you get that may help you find the other party.

  • Try calling possible phone numbers for the other party.

  • Ask the Postal Service for a forwarding address from the last known address you have. Look in the white pages of the phone book for all cities where s/he might live.

  • Call every friend, roommate, or relative of the opposing party you know. Ask about an address.

  • If the other party pays child support through DCS, and part of your petition includes a request to change child support or your parenting plan/custody order, do a DCS address release request.  Download the form, https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/ESA/dcs/documents/18-176A.pdf,  or in Spanish at https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/ESA/dcs/documents/18-176ASP.pdf. Or see our packet Filing a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order.  It may take 30 days or more to get the other party's address this way.

  • Check sources on the internet for finding people's addresses.  Example: Google.com.

  • Check with present or former employers or unions or co-workers to try to get a home address or a place of work.

I have found the other party. How do I personally serve them?

There are detailed instructions for your type of family law case and a Proof of Personal Service form at www.washingtonlawhelp.org under the Family Law topic area.  Look for the do-it-yourself packet for your type of case. 

Download a Proof of Personal Service form from the AOC website. Your server must fill out this form. You must then file it with the court as proof of service.  Keep a copy for your records.

I tried all of these methods. I still cannot find the other party for personal service. Now what?

You can ask court permission to serve the other party or parties by mail or publication.   Our self-help packet Service by Certified Mail or Publication, available at www.washingtonlawhelp.org, may help.

What if I need legal help?

CLEAR is Washington's toll-free, centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance with civil legal problems. 

  • Outside King County: Call 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:15 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. 

  • King County: Call 211 for information and referral to an appropriate legal services provider Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. You may also call (206) 461-3200, or the toll-free number, 1-877-211-WASH (9274). You can also get information on legal service providers in King County through 211's website at www.resourcehouse.com/win211/.

  • Persons 60 and Over: Persons 60 or over may call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111, regardless of income.

Deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired callers can call CLEAR or 211 using the relay service of their choice.
 
211 and CLEAR will conference in interpreters when needed at no cost to callers. 
 
Free legal education publications, videos and self-help packets covering many legal issues are available at www.washingtonlawhelp.org. 
 
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This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities.  It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. 
This information is current as of May 2016.

© 2016 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014

(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)
Last Review and Update: Jun 22, 2016