What to Do When Your Spouse Disappeared and You Want a Divorce

We often get asked the question, "How do I file for divorce if I don't know where my spouse is?" The truth is, you can file for a divorce or other family law action if you don't know where the respondent is (or how to reach them), but – you guessed it – it's more complicated.

In virtually every state, if you're the petitioner seeking divorce, the court requires you to serve (deliver) divorce forms on your spouse. This requirement prevents one spouse from divorcing the other without their knowledge. If your spouse is willing to sign a waiver of formal service, you're good to file. If not, you'll likely have to jump through a few hoops, especially if your spouse cannot be located.

Watch: What Happens If You Can't Find Your Spouse in Divorce?


Tips for finding a missing spouse

Here are all of the methods a judge will expect you to use to find your spouse before permitting you to proceed without them.

Google your ex 

You never know what an internet search might reveal. A personal or professional blog could have information about their location. You might find images of them or social media accounts with helpful information. You could also search for their family members via real estate sites like or

Search social networking sites

Check for your ex and people they're related to on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Sometimes, their locations are listed, or you can message them to make contact. You might also find photos of places they frequent that you (or a registered process server) can track down.

Send a letter to your spouse's last address

Be sure to write "Return service requested, do not forward" on the envelope. If your ex filed a change of address form with the USPS, you should get the letter back with their new address.

Call 411

Sometimes, if you call the city where you think your ex lives or works, you may be able to get a phone number or address by calling 411.

Try online telephone directories or a reverse telephone number directory

If you know their phone number, try to get the address from a reverse telephone number directory.

Contact relatives or friends

Call, write, or email your spouse's relatives, and ask if they would be willing to share any contact information with you. Or, ask them to contact your spouse on your behalf. The worst that could happen is that they could ignore you or refuse to give you information.

Try past employers

Contact your spouse's past employers to see if they have any information regarding their whereabouts such as the name or address of a new employer. It's worth a try!

Search property records

You can do this at a tax assessor's office, county registrar, or recorder's office.

Consider using a paid internet site that searches for people

The more info you have – name, date of birth, Social Security number – the more likely the results are to be accurate. Try looking up potential aliases as well.

Contact a private investigator, or be your own detective

Even if you don't know where someone lives, you may know where they frequent or know their habits. Do they go to a certain bar? Gym? Coffee shop? Remember, you can't serve your spouse yourself, but you can have a friend, family member, or registered process server help you track someone down.

Ask a consulate (if they are in another country)

If your spouse lives outside of the U.S. and you know which one, try to contact that country’s consulate for assistance.

Check prison or jail information systems

Search databases where your ex may be on the incarcerated list, or search the Federal Bureau of Prison's Inmate Locator Database. Make sure you have their proper name and date of birth.

Get a motion granted, and serve by post or publication

The most extreme, or last-resort, way to serve a spouse who is missing or unreachable is called service by notice or publication. You can only use this approach if you can prove you have exhausted almost every imaginable way of finding them. And you'll likely have to prove your efforts to a judge, so it's by no means an easy process. It's far better to at least know where your spouse is, even if they aren't complying. That way, you can enforce court orders such as a child or spousal support.

How to prove your efforts to find your spouse to the court

To get the court’s permission to serve your spouse by publishing a notice in the newspaper or a posting at the courthouse where you are filing, you must file a Motion to Serve by Publication or Posting. But keep in mind that courts are hesitant to allow this type of service without sufficient evidence that your spouse couldn’t be served by other conventional means. 

The court will want evidence that you’ve done an exhaustive search to find your missing spouse before it will grant permission. In the motion, you’ll want to detail when and where you last saw your spouse and include evidence of all your efforts to find them. This should include proof that you've done the following and the outcome of each:

  • Sent the paperwork via certified and regular mail to their last known address
  • Checked their last known address in person
  • Contacted their last known employer
  • Contacted their family members
  • Contacted the Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Checked the Social Security Death Index website
  • Checked court case records
  • Contacted local and federal prison databases
  • Checked the U.S. military locator website, if applicable
  • Checked local hospitals and homeless shelters
  • Other actions you’ve taken to locate your spouse

Along with the motion, list all places you’ve contacted, the date and the method you used, and copies of any documentation or correspondence you sent or received. Document what information you received in response to each inquiry, and keep all mail that was returned as undeliverable. If anyone refuses to give you information, that should also be included in your motion. 

The judge will review the motion and evidence and decide whether to grant or deny your request to serve via publication or post. If your request is granted, publication in at least one or two publications will typically be required once a week for three or four weeks. One usually must be in a legal newspaper, and the other can be a publication with a more general circulation in an area where they are most likely to be. You will be responsible for making these arrangements, providing the notice to their classified departments, and paying for the publication. The court will take care of posting the notice to a bulletin board at the appropriate clerk’s office. 

After publication, the newspaper where you have published will send an affidavit of publication. You must then file this with the court. 

State-specific laws about service of process when spouse can’t be found

Service or process rules can vary by state, county, and even by the specific local court. Your best resource is to contact the court where you have filed for your divorce to get the most concise, updated information on how to serve a spouse who can’t be located. 

You can find more state-specific information regarding service by publication or post by following the links below:

How much it costs to serve via publication

The costs to service via publication or post will vary depending on individual filing fees and what publication or notice you are using. Every court and publication is different and you will need to contact them directly to see what costs are involved. 

If you can’t afford to publish or post your notice, you may have already been granted a fee waiver indicating your financial constraints. If not, you can explain your financial circumstances in your motion to the court. The judge will review your explanation and decide whether to go ahead and permit publication or posting or not. 

If you decide to proceed with a service of notice or publication, you'll have to file a motion to do so with the court. The court is more likely to grant you this option if you have documented every attempt you already made to find or contact your spouse. Keep notes and evidence of your attempts. The court will want to see it.

Proceed with your divorce

If you cannot locate your spouse, or if they refuse to participate in the divorce proceedings, the process you go through will be known as a "true default" divorce in most states. This is more of a hurdle than other types of divorce, but it's not impossible. You can't be forced to stay in a marriage you don't want to be in. But the fact is, it'll take more of your time and effort to get things done if your ex is not cooperating.

Information needed to file for a true default divorce

Divorce laws have been designed to make it a fair process for both spouses. But if your spouse fails to cooperate or can’t be located after making serious attempts to find them, you may still be able to proceed with your divorce without their participation through a true default divorce. 

A true default divorce is an uncontested divorce where one spouse does not participate through their own choice or absence. The specific requirements for a default divorce will vary by jurisdiction, but it will begin when the filing spouse has proven to the court their inability to get cooperation or locate their spouse.

8 steps to follow for a true default divorce

While the default divorce process varies from state to state, the default divorce process generally takes a similar path:

  1.  To file for a true default divorce, you must first file for divorce according to your state’s or county’s requirements and attempt to serve your spouse with the appropriate paperwork, if possible. 
  2.  If your spouse can’t be located, you must also fulfill the requirements necessary to serve them alternately via publication or post before you will be able to proceed further. 
  3.  If you have served your spouse, you must wait for the state-required waiting period for a response. Waiting periods vary depending on your state.
  4.  If your spouse can’t be located or hasn’t responded within this time, you can then file a formal motion for a default divorce judgment with the court. With your request, you must include a proposed settlement agreement, including what you are asking for in property division, child custody arrangements, child support, and alimony. 
  5.  Once the request is received and processed by the court, a default hearing will be scheduled to hear your case. A hearing may not even be required for a default divorce in certain cases in some states.
  6.  If your state requires financial disclosures be completed, you will still be required to file them.
  7.  At the default hearing, a judge will ask you questions regarding your case and your attempts to locate or get cooperation from your spouse, and then review your proposed settlement agreement. If everything seems in order and looks fair and reasonable, the judge may agree to its terms. Or they may ask for more information or supporting documentation.
  8.  Depending on your state, a judge may issue a divorce decree immediately after the default hearing. Other states require a waiting period before the court will issue the judgment. 
  9.  Most courts also require you to attempt to inform your spouse after the default judgment has been entered. You may need to mail a copy to your spouse’s last known address or publish the notice of the judgment in a publication. 
Need more help? Consider enlisting the help of a process server in your area. If you need legal consultation, you can read about our hourly attorney appointments here.


Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.