When your spouse tells you that she’s filed a divorce petition, you'll probably spend the next several days waiting for a sheriff’s officer to show up at your workplace to deliver the papers. That scenario is more fiction than reality. Most states offer other more pleasant options for service. In some cases, you may receive her papers the same day your spouse files them. In others, the process can take weeks or even months.
Your spouse doesn’t have to serve you with her papers the same day she files them. However, most states will dismiss her petition or complaint if she doesn’t get around to doing so within a reasonable period of time. The definition of “reasonable” varies among states. In California, it is two years. In other states, it is a matter of months. How long service takes depends on when your spouse begins the process.
Acceptance of Service
The fastest method of service is when you make arrangements with your spouse to voluntarily accept the papers. If you’ve retained an attorney, he will usually accept them on your behalf. If your spouse has retained an attorney, you can generally pick up the papers at his office and sign for them there. Your spouse can also give the papers to you personally in most states, as long as you sign an acceptance of service or a waiver of official service. By any of these means, service should only take a day or two.
Some states allow for service by mail, either regular, certified or both. In this case, how quickly you receive the papers depends on the United States Postal Service. Some states will not allow your spouse to mail you the papers herself; she must arrange to have an uninterested third party do it. This may take a little additional time, but it can all usually be accomplished in less than a week.
Sheriff or Process Server
If your spouse does choose to use the local sheriff to deliver the papers to you, or if your state only accepts service by this method, the time frame extends somewhat. Your spouse’s divorce petition will have to wait for an available deputy or officer, then that officer must track you down during business hours to serve you. This can take up to a week. The process is usually quicker if your spouse pays for a private process server to give you the paperwork. Private servers are not limited to working only during business hours and can call ahead to arrange to meet with you somewhere. Some states also allow a disinterested third party over the age of majority to hand-deliver the papers. If your spouse chooses any of these methods, you’ll probably receive the papers within about a week.
If your spouse doesn’t know where you’re currently living or working, this can delay the process of service significantly. If you’re trying to stay off the radar and avoid service, she can usually serve you by publication in a newspaper in most states. However, this requires special permission from the court. The entire process can take months, because most states will require her to diligently try to find you first.