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How to Serve the Other Party in a Family Law Case

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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Blank forms to print and fill out on your own, with how-to instructions for completing and filing. When filing your case, make sure 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. #3201EN

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Do I have to serve the other party?

Yes. When you file a family law case in court, you must 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"). 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 decisions in your case until you can show proof that the other party got copies of your court papers.

How do I have the other party served?

There are three different ways: 

  1. personal service (hand delivery)

  2. by mail

  3. by publication    

In Washington, you must always try to have the other party personally served. If you absolutely cannot have them served this way, you can ask court permission to serve them by 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 old enough living at their home. The person who delivers the papers is your "server."   

You do not need court permission for personal service.

Personal service is usually the cheapest way to get the other party served.

Keep track of everything you do to try to get the other party personally served. You may be unsuccessful. At that point, you need court permission to serve by mail or publication.

Who can do personal service?

You can get a friend to do this, or you can pay a server.

What is service by mail? 

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

You find someone to mail the paperwork for you. They must 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 this way. 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 to serve by mail.

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

How can I find the other party for personal service?

You must make an honest, reasonable search. Follow up on any information you get that may help you find them.

  • Try calling possible phone numbers for them.

  • Ask the Postal Service for a forwarding address from the last known address you have.

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

  • If the other party pays child support through DCS, and you are trying to change child support or your parenting plan, do a DCS address release request. Or see our packet File 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 online for finding people's addresses.

  • Talk to the other party's present or former employers, 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 have them personally served?

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

There is also a Proof of Personal Service form here. Your server must fill out this form. You must then file it with the court. Keep a copy for your records.

I tried everything. I 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. Use our Service by Certified Mail or Publication packet.

Get Legal Help

Visit Northwest Justice Project to find out how to get legal help.

Last Review and Update: Mar 05, 2020
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