How Do I Get a Divorce if I Can’t Find My Spouse?

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If a long time has passed since you separated, or the split was acrimonious, you may not know your spouse’s home address. You can still get divorced even if you do not know the whereabouts of your spouse, although there are some additional hurdles to overcome.

You will need to show the court you have attempted to locate your spouse and must provide evidence of those efforts with your divorce petition. You should enquire with family, friends, neighbours, former employers, and any other person you know your spouse to have an association with to try and get their address. If you have a solicitor, they can help arrange these activities.

What if I can’t find an address for my spouse?

There are several routes you can take:

  • If you know where your spouse is working or where their relatives live, then you can ask the court for the divorce petition to be served on them instead. However, you will need to persuade the court that your spouse will be made aware, or become aware, of the proceedings, otherwise you will need to choose a different option.
  • If you do not have any contact with your in-laws, you can apply to the court for a disclosure order. However, this can only be used where your spouse last lived in the UK. The order is made to HMRC and you will need to know and provide your spouse’s date of birth, national insurance number and their last address (if you know it). HMRC will then search their database and notify the court of the address if they find it. The court will then send the divorce papers to that address.
  • If your spouse has moved aboard, or you cannot find either them or any of their relatives, you can apply to the court to dispense with service of the divorce petition. There are additional costs for this which are set at £55.
  • You can also use a tracing agent to locate your spouse, but as this service comes at a cost, it may be prohibitive.

Using a tracing agent to locate your spouse

Tracing agents are experts in tracing missing individuals and can usually do this in a matter of days, providing you with a much-needed address. Typically, they charge on a two-tier basis – an initial sum called a ‘submission fee’ which they use for their search budget, and a ‘success fee’ which is contingent on providing you with your spouse’s location. However, you are probably looking at spending the best part of £300, and sometimes more, for these types of services. As with any service, it is advisable to get a few quotes upfront and check out online reviews before making a final decision.

Can the divorce papers be served via email?

The Family Procedure Rules are clear that a divorce petition cannot be served on a respondent (the person receiving the divorce petition) by email or fax. There are specific rules which must be followed, including correctly serving divorce papers on the respondent, which is evidenced by the return of a completed “Acknowledgement of Service” form. This proves to the court that the documents have been correctly served and allows divorce proceedings to continue.

My spouse has not responded to the divorce petition, what now?

If your spouse does not return their Acknowledgement of Service to the court within 14 days, the divorce proceedings will stall, however, there are several things you can do:

  • Arrange for personal service of the divorce documents to the respondent – this is where an agent of the court or process server takes the papers and personally delivers them to your spouse. The agent will then file a certificate of service with the court to confirm the respondent has been served. You can then apply for a decree nisi without having to wait for the Acknowledgement of Service to be returned. There is an additional court fee for this service.
  • Apply to the court for deemed service – this can only be used in cases where your spouse has acknowledged in writing (for example in a letter, email, or text message) they have received the divorce petition. This will enable you to apply for decree nisi, even though they have not returned the Acknowledgement of Service.
  • Ask the court for permission to serve the divorce papers by an alternative method or alternative placefor example, your spouse’s parent’s or new partner’s house. You must show the court there is a ‘good reason’ to make the application.
  • Ask the court to dispense with service – you will need to set out all the enquiries you have made to identify your spouse’s location, for example, where you asked family, friends, or their employer. The court will only make an order if it is satisfied you have exhausted all options before applying for an order to dispense with service.

Can my spouse be charged with abandonment?

The court will look to your spouse’s intention, and need to be satisfied that when leaving, your spouse intended to abandon the marriage. If you can, gather evidence to support your case, such as emails, text messages, or any other communication confirming their intention. If you have made every effort to contact your spouse, which they have ignored, that lack of response may help convince a court of their overall intention.

You will need to show the court that your spouse abandoned you for two years before starting a divorce petition. They will consider whether your spouse had a good reason to leave, e.g., they moved abroad for work and did not intend the marriage to end, or you agreed to a trial separation (even if you do not know where your spouse is living).

If there are any other grounds for divorce that apply in your circumstances, it is generally advised to apply on one of those grounds rather than pursue a desertion petition as it can be notoriously difficult to prove. Your solicitor can advise you on any other grounds that may apply to your circumstances.

Will the divorce take longer if I can’t find my spouse?

An uncontested divorce usually takes on average, around 6 months. However, in cases where serving papers has become an issue, or where your spouse refuses to return an Acknowledgement of Service, proceedings can become significantly extended.

What costs may be involved if I cannot locate my spouse?

Once you have paid the costs of the divorce petition, additional costs will apply if you make further applications, e.g., asking the court for personal service, making applications for deemed service, permission for alternative service, requesting the court to dispense with service or paying for tracing agents to locate your spouse. Any additional work required by your solicitor will also add cost.

If you think you may have the added complication of trying to locate your spouse to progress your divorce, you should bear in mind the potential costs and try to budget accordingly.

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