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How Do You Divorce Someone That Goes AWOL and Can't Be Found?

Cynthia M. Fox

Not long ago, I received the following email:
What do you do if your spouse just gets up and leaves and cannot be located? I have been trying to get a divorce and this seems so impossible. How can I move on with my life?

There is a way out of this mess and your situation is not that uncommon, nor is it particularly difficult to resolve, but you will need the assistance of an attorney. In simplified terms, here what your lawyer would do:
  1. File for a divorce in the county where you now reside.
  2. Pursuant to that filing, your counsel will attempt to have the divorce papers served on your spouse at his/her last known address and at any other location where you think he/she can likely be found. I presume you have already tried to reach your spouse at these locations without success so the probability of serving him/her is low, but perhaps you'll get lucky. In any case, you must make one attempt of "physical service" before you are allowed to take the next step, except where you have no reasonable basis for locating the missing husband/wife.
    Even though serving your mate "in-person" is typically the least costly method, there are a couple "downsides" to be aware of. First, the local sheriff's office charges for each separate attempted service (but they will typically try several times), or some counties charge a fee based upon the mileage involved (they, too, will try several times, but just charge the mileage for l trip). Serving multiple locations in order to find a spouse that has gone AWOL can become a bit expensive.
    Second, it is best to complete service in Missouri, if possible, because service of your mate in another state will limit the court's ability to do certain things, such as to divide marital property that is held in a state other than Missouri.
  3. If you cannot get him/her served, or have no reasonable basis for attempting that, then you are permitted to serve him/her "by publication". This is accomplished by running a notice in any newspaper of general circulation in the county where you filed your case. What is required is a fairly long paid advertisement, at your expense, that contains the following information: a) a case has been started, b) the purpose of the case, c) a description of any property to be affected, d) the name of the court and the names of the parties to the case, e) the name of the attorney for the petitioner, or, if none, the petitioner's address, f) that judgment by default will be entered against the respondent unless he/she files an answer or other pleading or otherwise appears and defends within 45 days after the date of the lst publication. The notice must run once a week for 4 consecutive weeks. There is usually a newspaper in most large counties that specializes in this type of advertising and your attorney should know the most cost-efficient way to get this done.
  4. Assuming he/she has not responded after the 4th notice, you can proceed without your spouse. In all likelihood, the court will give you a default judgment awarding you a divorce (changing your status from married to single), custody of any children who have lived in Missouri at least 6 months, divide the marital property located within Missouri, while setting apart any separate property located in Missouri.
And, best of all, you will be able to get on with your life and, perhaps, find someone much better to marry the next time around!

For over 25 years Cynthia M. Fox has focused her practice in family law, with a particular emphasis on matters relating to the dissolution of marriage: divorce representation and mediation, child custody and child support. She is a native St. Louis and a graduate of the Washington University School of Law, Class of '73.

Cynthia M. Fox can be contacted by phone at (314)727-4880 or
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