Conflict is an unfortunate part of life, and some conflicts can’t be resolved without turning to the court system. Someone who commits an outright crime against you, for example, would ideally face criminal prosecution. In that case, the legal system does most of the heavy lifting, and you might not even need to show up and testify.
Things are more complicated if you’re suing someone in civil court, or working out a divorce, support or custody arrangements in family court. By law you’re required to serve papers on the defendant, so that they know the case is happening and have a fair opportunity to defend themselves. Sometimes that’s not a straightforward process, either because you have limited information about the person you’re suing or because they’re actively evading service. This raises the question of how to serve papers on someone you can’t find.
How to Serve Papers on Someone You Can’t Find
When you can’t find the person you need to serve, your options are determined in part by the jurisdiction where you live. That’s why it’s really important — and beyond the scope of this article — to know what constitutes “acceptable service” in your particular case. Getting a solid answer requires local legal knowledge, so ask your lawyer (if you’re using one), a court clerk or a local legal-assistance organization if one is available.
Once you know what you have to do to meet your legal obligations, you basically have three choices:
- Do some sleuthing: Get in touch with your inner Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew and use whatever resources are open to you — within the bounds of the law — to find the person you need to serve. We’ll look at those options in detail in a moment.
- Hire a professional: If you have the budget for it, and it makes sense to invest money rather than your own time and effort, you can hire a professional to track the person down and serve your papers. This could be a professional process server or, for the really tough ones, a private detective.
- Service by publication: If you’ve tried everything to find the person and come up short, some jurisdictions will allow you to serve notice of your suit by publishing the pertinent details in your local newspaper or other suitable forum. You’ll need to persuade the court that you’ve already exhausted all other reasonable avenues, and you may need to file additional documents with the court (which means more time and expense).
The third of those choices isn’t always available, and the second is costly, so generally the first is your best bet. The more information you can find, the more avenues will open up to serving the papers and moving your case forward.
Tracking Down Someone You Know
If the person you’re trying to reach is someone you actually know who’s simply being uncooperative, you have lots of material to work with. They may have concealed their current location from you, but you still know a lot about their life and you can use that to your advantage. A few examples include:
Their Social Media Accounts
Even if you’re blocked on their social media accounts, chances are good that either you have some mutual friends or they, or some of their friends, have non-private posts you can see if you dig for them. Stake those out, looking for check-ins, family get-togethers or other posts that can help you get a fix on where your person of interest is spending their time.
Photos are the best, because by default phone photos contain location data in the form of GPS coordinates. You can use a stand-alone program to extract them or just install an extension in your browser. Alternatively, you can just copy the photo and paste it into an online location viewer, which will automatically convert the data into a mapped location for you. Bingo! Now you know where they’re spending their time and —- if they’ve posted photos from home — where they live.
In many jurisdictions you can serve papers to a party at their workplace (again, check with your legal advisor as to what constitutes “acceptable service”).
Their Friends and Family
They may be dodging you, but they’ll still be seeing friends and family. If you know where and when and why they gather, you’ll have an opportunity to either serve papers in person or have someone do it for you.
Their Habits and Lifestyle
Does your target have a standing appointment at a specific hairdresser? A 6 a.m. gym habit? A monthly Scotch-tasting club at the local bar? Those all present opportunities to serve your papers even without a home address.
The US Postal Service
If you know their old address, send a letter to that address with “Return Service Requested: Do Not Forward” on the envelope. You’ll get it back with the new address, if the USPS has one on file. You can also simply ask the post office if they have a forwarding address for that person.
Tracking Down Someone You Don’t Know
Things get more complicated when you don’t actually know the person or (in the case of scammers or “catfishers”) what you thought you knew is fictional. In those cases, your best bet is to start by pooling everything you do know about the person — an email address, a phone number, a former address, a business card — and use that as your starting point.
Googling your target is probably the first thing you’ll think of (and it’s certainly not a bad idea, as far as it goes) but there’s a better way: use Spokeo’s people search tools instead. Searching on the name, email, phone number or former address and then narrowing down those results to the correct geographic area can give you a wealth of useful information about your target. It might include current and former addresses, additional phone numbers, property ownership, even social media or dating-site handles.
Armed with that information, you can go to the county clerk’s office or website to look up property ownership details, or view their online profiles or find out where they work (LinkedIn is great for that). The more information you have, the more ways you can potentially get your papers served.
Making Sure You Do It Right
It’s important to document every step of this journey, so you can demonstrate to the court that you’ve done all of the things you were supposed to. That includes the date, time and outcome of every attempt at serving your papers, and the person you spoke to on each occasion.
Again, these requirements can vary between jurisdictions, even in neighboring cities or counties. It’s vitally important to know those requirements before you start, whether they’re in the form of a preprinted checklist from the court or advice from a legal professional. To be clear, our blog isn’t a source for legal advice (judges tend to take a dim view of explanations that begin with “Well, I saw this article on the internet…”). Even non-local advice from impeccable legal sources isn’t always pertinent: any article using words and phrases like “typically,” “usually” or “in most jurisdictions” needs to be verified against your local court’s requirements before you rely on it.
If you do all of those things, you can face your day in court with the confidence that you’ve met your obligations appropriately.
- ABC Legal: Why You Shouldn’t Avoid Being Served With Legal Documents
- Alpine Security: 2 Simple Ways to Extract GPS Coordinates From Pictures
- Pic2Map: Pic2Map Photo Location Viewer
- NOLO: Serving Court Papers On an Individual
- HG.org: How Can I Serve Someone if I Don’t Know Where They Live?
- Family Law Self-Help Center: How to Serve the Custody/Paternity Papers