If you're getting ready to file for divorce, you might be wondering whether you'll need to hire a process server to deliver the papers to your spouse. The answer to that question will depend on the rules in your state (and sometimes your county). It will also depend on whether—and how much—you and your spouse are cooperating in the divorce process.
In the context of divorce, "service of process" means a formal method for delivering (or "serving") official copies of the divorce papers to your spouse (or your spouse's lawyer). The goal is to make sure your spouse knows that you've filed for divorce and has a chance to respond to any claims or requests you made in your divorce petition (sometimes called a "complaint"). However, you might be able to bypass formal service of process in some circumstances (more on that below).
Courts generally require proof that you've satisfied the state requirements for filing and serving divorce papers before your divorce can move forward.
You might be able to serve divorce papers in different ways, depending on your situation and the laws in your state.
A process server is a person who's authorized to hand-deliver the divorce papers to your spouse. Most county sheriffs will carry out this task for a fee. In some states, like Florida, only the sheriff (or someone appointed by the sheriff) is allowed to serve divorce papers. (Fla. Stat. § 48.021 (2024).)
However, many states give you the option of hiring a professional process server. The sheriff's office or professional process server will generally take care of filing the required paperwork with the court proving that the documents were delivered.
Whether you use a sheriff or another process server, you'll need to provide one or more addresses where the process server is most likely to find your spouse, like a home address, workplace, or lawyer's office.
The cost to have a sheriff serve your divorce papers varies by state, and sometimes by county. In some states, the standard fee for service by sheriff is set by state law ($40 in California). In other states, like Illinois and New York, the sheriff in each county sets the fee (starting at $60 in Chicago and $52 in New York City). The fee schedules can change, so you should contact your local sheriff's office or check their website to confirm the cost.
If you're considering hiring a professional process server, the National Association of Professional Process Servers estimates that the average fee is between $20 and $100. These fees are often limited by state law. Expect extra fees if your process server needs to travel a long distance or make more than a few attempts to serve your spouse.
If you can't afford to pay a process server, the court might be able to help. Many states have a procedure for waiving the sheriff's service fees for residents who qualify for public assistance programs like Medicaid, SSI, or SNAP/food stamps. To get a court to waive this fee, you usually need to apply and qualify for a waiver of the filing fees and other costs in your case. Ask the civil clerk's office or courthouse self-help desk about the forms and documents you'll need to get started. Many state and county courts also publish this type of information on their websites, like in this New Jersey divorce self-help guide.
Several states, like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, allow you to serve divorce papers by mail, if you follow strict requirements. Typically, you'll need to use certified or registered mail through the U.S. Postal Service, with return receipt requested. The signed receipt will be the proof that you served your spouse with the paperwork.
A few states also allow you to use private delivery services. In North Carolina, for instance, you may choose from the state's list of preapproved delivery companies (including UPS and FedEx) and file the printed or electronic delivery receipt from the carrier as proof of service. (N.C. Rules Civ. Proc., rule 4(j)(1)(d) (2024).)
If you haven't been able to serve your spouse through any of the regular methods allowed in your state, you might be able to use an alternative (or "substituted") method. But you'll need to get approval from the court after showing that you made "diligent" attempts to find and serve your spouse.
States (and local courts) may have different requirements for these diligent search efforts. Typically, you'll at least need to provide evidence that you made multiple attempts to reach your spouse at the places they are likely to be found, such as their last known home address, workplace, or lawyer's office.
The most common alternative method is service by publication, which usually means posting a notice in a local newspaper. In some states, you may post a notice at the courthouse or another public place.
If you're on good terms with your spouse, you might be able to avoid the time and expense of formally serving divorce papers. There are basically two ways of doing this:
If you hire a lawyer to represent you in your divorce, your attorney will take care of all of the paperwork and other legal matters, including serving your spouse with the petition or complaint. But if you've decided that you can handle your own divorce without hiring a lawyer, you should be able to get information about the local requirements for serving divorce papers from the court clerk's office where you've filed for divorce, either in person, over the phone, or on the website.
However, you should know that the legal requirements for alternative service of process can be complicated. So if you haven't been able to find your spouse, or your spouse is refusing to accept service, you should consult with a lawyer in your state. If necessary, a lawyer can also explain your options for getting divorced without your spouse.