Deeper Dive on Divorce: Understanding State Divorce Laws and Avoiding Mistakes

As we make our final dive into the third and closing article in our series,“Deeper Dive on Divorce” we conclude with the pitfalls for the unwary. In part one we established the difference between a legal divorce and annulment, explaining how differences in the legal grounds and consequences of divorce vs. annulment arise from the same conceptual difference; a divorce ends a marriage while a legal annulment asserts a valid marriage never existed in the first place. 

In part two we examined the various types of service of process allowed for a divorce summons, state residency qualifications, processing times and state issued filing fees from Alaska to Missouri, as well as understanding divorce law before filing a summons. In this article we will take a continued look at the various types of service of process allowed for a divorce summons, state residency qualifications, processing times and state issued filing fees for the other alphabetical half of the U.S. from Montana to Wyoming. In addition, we’ll explore the ways inaccurate process of service can adversely affect the divorce process and ways to avoid these costly and time consuming mistakes. 


Mistakes by the Unwary

Regardless of the state, a divorce case will not proceed until the opposing spouse has been formally notified of the divorce proceedings via a properly delivered summons or complaint, as laid out by state law (see below). 

Without proper service of process, the opposing party can simply fail to show up to court hearings. If a default judgment is then rendered against them, the opposing spouse can always contest the court by noting that the divorce summons/complaint was never properly served in the first place. A costly, time consuming, stressful and avoidable mistake. 

Fortunately, there are steps to avoid this type of unfortunate outcome. They include: 

  • Hire skilled and knowledgeable legal counsel in the area of family law. A skilled lawyer can greatly reduce stress and unwary mistakes, helping you to move forward faster.
  • Ensure service of process is handled by an experienced, skilled and licensed professional process server (where allowed). Never rely on a relative, friend or inexperienced acquaintance to deliver the vital and important divorce summons/complaint. 
  • Educate yourself. Stress and emotions can interfere with making solid, calculated decisions. Understanding the divorce process in your state and relying on facts and established laws over thoughts, feelings and emotions will allow for sharper judgement when it matters most. 

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Divorce Rules by State

Divorce law is state law. Meaning, there are 50 different sets of state law, plus the District of Columbia. Although the basic principles of marriage are similar in every state (for example, no state allows bigamy or incest) they do differ in essential ways from state to state. For the list of states from Alabama to Missouri check out the second article in our series, “Deeper Dive: Understanding the Laws of Divorce Before Filing Summons”.   

Below is an alphabetical list of divorce summons rules that apply by state from Montana to Wyoming, with links to the state pages for additional information and resources. 

Montana

  • Divorce rules: Three months of state residency; six months separation requirement; $200 filing fee; approximately four months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: sheriff.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, certified mail or service by publication if your spouse cannot be located.

Nebraska

  • Divorce rules: One year months state residency; no separation requirement; $157  filing fee; about 14 months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: You or the sheriff.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person or other methods authorized by the court.

Nevada

  • Divorce rules: One-month state residency; 12 months separation requirement; $289  filing fee; about  42 days processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: a non-party over 18, the sheriff, constable, or a professional process server. 
  • Forms of service of process: In-person.

New Hampshire

  • Divorce rules: One-year state residency;  two years separation requirement; $180  filing fee; no minimum processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: You or the sheriff.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, service by certified mail.

New Jersey

  • Divorce rules: One-year state residency; 18 months separation requirement; $250  filing fee; about one year processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Sheriff or professional process server.
  • Forms of service of process: In person, or by certified mail or other means with the court’s permission.

New Mexico

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; no separation requirement; $137 filing fee; about six months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: The sheriff or any non-party over 18 years old.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person or service by certified mail.

New York

  • Divorce rules: One-year state residency; one-year separation requirement; $335  filing fee; about one year processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: 18 years old non-party and a New York state resident.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, or other means allowed by the court.

North Carolina

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; one-year separation requirement; $225  filing fee; about one year processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Sheriff’s deputy.
  • Forms of service of process:  In-person, other means authorized by the court according to circumstance.

North Dakota

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; no separation requirement; $289 filing fee; about six months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Sheriff, constable, or professional process server.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person or other means authorized by the court.

Ohio

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; one-year separation requirement; $175  filing fee; about seven months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Sheriff or a professional process server.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, certified mail, registered mail, or other means authorized by the court. Service by publication is allowed with the court's permission if you don't know your spouse's whereabouts.

Oklahoma

  • Divorce rules: Six months of state residency; no separation requirement; $186  filing fee; six or seven months average processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Sheriff or professional process server not personally involved in the case.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person or alternative means allowed by the court under certain circumstances.

Oregon

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; no separation requirement; $260 filing fee; about nine months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: A state resident over 18 who is not a party to the action.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, substitute service, service by certified mail or other means authorized by the court.

Pennsylvania

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; three months separation requirement; $317  filing fee; about nine months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Any non-party over 18, or a professional process server.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, certified mail, or other means authorized by the court.

Rhode Island

  • Divorce rules:  One year months state residency; three years separation requirement; $120  filing fee; about 17 months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: County sheriff, private constable.
  • Forms of service of process:  In-person, or other means authorized by the court under certain circumstances.

South Carolina

  • Divorce rules: One year months state residency; one-year separation requirement; $150  filing fee; about 15 months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: You, a sheriff, or a professional process server.
  • Forms of service of process: In person, by certified mail or by another means authorized by the court.

South Dakota

  • Divorce rules: No state residency requirement; no separation requirement; $95  filing fee; about two months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Professional process server or a law enforcement official such as a sheriff or constable. You can serve the papers yourself if the divorce is uncontested.
  • Forms of service of process: In person, by certified mail or by other means authorized by the court.

Tennessee

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; two years separation requirement; $302  filing fee; about two months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: A sheriff or a professional process server in your spouse's home state. 
  • Forms of service of process: In person, by certified mail, or if you don't know where your spouse is living, publication in a newspaper selected by the court.

Texas

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; three years separation requirement; $235  filing fee; about eight months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: A constable, a sheriff, or a private process server.
  • Forms of service of process:  In person, by certified or registered mail (return receipt requested) or other means allowed by the court.

Utah

  • Divorce rules: Three months of state residency; 36 months separation requirement; $310 filing fee; about six months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Someone over 18 who is not a party to the case (except the person filing for divorce). A sheriff, constable, private process server, or US Marshal can also be used.
  • Forms of service of process:  In person, by certified mail or by other means authorized by the court.

Vermont

  • Divorce rules: One-year state residency; six months separation requirement; $263  filing fee; about 15 months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: A sheriff or deputy. 
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, certified mail, first-class mail, or by publication if you don’t know where your spouse is.

Virginia

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; one-year separation requirement; $84 filing fee; about six months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Deputy Sheriff or a comparable official.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, substitute person to person at least 16 years old living in the other spouse's household, or certified mail.

Washington

  • Divorce rules: No state residency requirement; no separation requirement; $280  filing fee; about three months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Anyone over 18 who is not a party to the action.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, or alternative service authorized by the court.

West Virginia

  • Divorce rules: One-year state residency; one-year separation requirement; $135  filing fee; about one year processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Sheriff, or a private process server.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, as well as certified mail or service by publication with the permission of the court.

Wisconsin

  • Divorce rules: Six months state residency; one-year separation requirement; $188  filing fee; about 10 months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Anyone over eight-years-old who is not a party to the divorce. Many people use a professional process server or the police or sheriff's department.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, or other means authorized by the court.

Wyoming

  • Divorce rules: Two months state residency; no separation requirement; $70  filing fee; about three months processing time.
  • Qualifications for serving divorce papers: Sheriff.
  • Forms of service of process: In-person, or other means authorized by the court under special circumstances, such as your spouse is serving in the military overseas.

Divorce is widely known as the most stressful event a person can experience in one’s life. It can be a painful process with numerous pitfalls and blows stretching out for months, even years. In fact, divorce can be so stressful that according to the medical paper “Divorce and Health: Current Trends and Future Directions'' by David A. Sbarra, PhD published on psycmed, “The experience of separation or divorce confers risk for poor health outcomes, including a 23% higher mortality rate.” 

Given those facts, and the tremendous amount of stress divorce can place on an individual, divorcees can experience poor judgement and an understandable lack of experience. There are dozens of possible ways of committing an error in the service of process phase of serving the actual summons. 

The following are common service of process mistakes regarding a divorce summons/complaint:

  • Never serving process in the first place. This will get the entire case dismissed.
  • Serving process yourself, unless state law allows this (most states don’t).
  • Serving process with defective documents (notice and summons). This is best to have a lawyer draft these documents, unless your state has prefabricated forms available.
  • Having an unlicensed person serve process when the state requires a licensed or certified professional process server.
  • Serving process by mail when the state does not allow this (most states don't except under minimal circumstances).

After three articles and a breakdown of the divorce process in each state we can gather this much: Divorce (and annulment) are legal processes to dissolve a marriage that happen concurrently with life events so stressful they can impact the health and wellbeing of all involved parties. Understanding this, as well as the laws that govern divorce in one’s particular state through self-education and professional legal services (attorney, professional process service) will help both parties avoid unwary pitfalls. 

Obtaining experienced legal counsel is possible even if the financial means aren’t. Free legal aid services  are available in each state, as an independent nonprofit organization established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. To learn more visit the nonprofit  Legal Services Corporation

If you’re interested in professional, skilled process of service for a divorce summons or complaint visit ABC Legal Services for more information.


About ABC Legal Services

ABC Legal is the nation’s leading service of process and court filing company and is the official process server to the U.S. Department of Justice. Docketly is a subsidiary of ABC Legal, providing appearance counsel on a digital, custom-built platform that smoothly integrates with our applications and services. ABC Legal’s applications are cloud-based and compatible for use on desktop, browser, and smartphones. Our solutions and digital approach ensure process server partners, law firm customers, and their clients save valuable time and resources when serving legal notices safely and with maximum compliance, control, and transparency. ABC Legal is based in Seattle, WA, with more than 2,000 process servers throughout the U.S., as well as internationally in more than 75 countries. To learn more about ABC Legal, our solutions, and subsidiary company Docketly, visit www.abclegal.com

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