When a marriage goes wrong, a common threat you may hear is, “I’ve filed for divorce and am taking everything!” Another scenario is that you’ve heard rumors that your estranged spouse is dating or has remarried, which is a surprise because you didn’t know you were divorced. Most often, it is a nagging suspicion that something is wrong. With some knowledge about the legal records system you can verify if a divorce has been filed. You need to know the truth. Sometimes it is to protect your rights. Other times it is for your own peace of mind.
PREPARING FOR YOUR SEARCH
Educate yourself about divorce. In order to be divorced, a court has to rule that the marriage contract is dissolved and no longer exists. Without a judgment by the court, there is no divorce. Avoiding divorce myths can help you find the information that you need.
• There is no such thing as a “secret divorce” or “emergency divorce.” Divorce proceedings are public records governed by state law. Some details, especially concerning children, may be sealed by the court, but the existence of the divorce, the parties, and the case number are public records and those records can be found.
• Divorce must be granted by a court. There is no “common law divorce,” meaning that if you are separated for a certain amount of time, you are automatically divorced. A divorce action does not begin until a petition is filed with the court.
• On the other side, there is no requirement for you to consent to the divorce. A common myth is that you can only be divorced if you agree. Your spouse can file for a divorce in any court where she can establish jurisdiction.
• No divorce can proceed without giving you notice. However, depending on the circumstances, that notice may be in a newspaper in your, or your spouse’s, hometown. Don’t assume that because you haven’t been served that there isn’t a divorce proceeding pending.
Gather your information. To investigate and get information from public records, you need some basic information. The first is your spouse’s full legal name, especially if it is common. A large jurisdiction will have many actions involving “Joseph Smith.” Your searches must include, at a minimum, the middle initial and usually the full name. Next is your spouse’s county of residence. This is not a deal-breaker, especially if you have been separated a long time, but without it, your search will be much more difficult. Other information including date of birth and Social Security number will help you narrow the searches.
Prioritize your search areas. Typically, divorce can only be filed in states where one party has lived for at least six months and the county were one party has lived from one to three months. The first county on the list will be where you live. The next, if you are separated, is where your spouse lives. If your spouse has disappeared, take some educated guesses, such as the counties where his closest friends and family live. Your goal is to narrow your initial search as much as possible.
• Divorce is an action of state law. As a result, there is no national compilation of divorce records.
• If your estranged spouse is active duty military, National Guard, or active reserves, check both the state and county where he is stationed and the state and county where he lived for at least six months before his most recent deployment. Most state laws recognize both of these locations as residency for a divorce action.
CONDUCTING YOUR SEARCH
Contact your spouse’s attorney. If you know your spouse has retained an attorney, you can contact him and ask if a divorce has been filed. However, the attorney has a duty of confidentiality to his client and is under no obligation to give you any information. If the answer is “no” or evasive, keep searching in order to verify whether a divorce has been filed.
• If the answer is “yes,” you have several options. The first is to contact an attorney of your own and let her deal with your spouse on your behalf. Next is to deal directly with his attorney. If you don’t have children and very little property, the divorce maybe be as simple as arranging a meeting to sign agreements.
• Remember that while your spouse’s attorney may be very nice and helpful, he represents your spouse and his interests, not you. If are feel uncomfortable or pressured, back off and contact your own attorney. You have a right to copies of all documents and time to review them outside the attorney’s office.
Confront your spouse and family. This will depend on your individual situation. If your relationship with him is safe, meaning no history of domestic violence, sometimes the direct approach is the best. If your relationship with his family is cordial, a phone call to a parent or sibling may tip you to the truth.
Conduct an online search. Check the social media pages for your spouse, his closest friends, and family. Also run an online of search of your spouse’s name and “divorce.” You may pick up an online docket or catch someone gossiping.
• Be very careful and verify you have found your spouse. In informal forums, people may use nicknames, odd spellings, and not use full names. However, it still gives you a place to start.
Some states allow you to check family court records online, but the rules for this depend on the jurisdiction. You must usually be a party to the case, and in some states, even this isn’t enough – you must be an attorney. But the records are open to the public in some jurisdictions. Type the name of the state where you’re looking into a search engine, then add the phrase “court records” to find out if your state offers this convenience.
Check the Newspaper
If your spouse doesn’t know where you’re currently living or working – maybe because you separated years ago then moved out of state – he can’t have you personally served with divorce papers through traditional means. However, he can ask the judge for permission to serve you by publication if he can prove that he looked for you in every nook and cranny, contacted friends and loved ones, and searched public databases and social media. If so, the judge will allow him to serve you by placing a notice in the largest newspaper, either locally or serving the locality where he last knew you to reside. Contact newspapers in your previous places of residence – and his – and ask them to check their records for such a notice. Depending on the newspaper, you might even be able to do this online.
Contact your local courthouse. Court clerks will speak to you over the phone, but in large counties they are very busy and may be brusque or not check the records thoroughly. It is better to go to the courthouse in person.
• Most courthouses have a public records computer terminal. You can search by your name or the name of your spouse. Check them carefully and get the right file. The documents can usually be printed for a small fee.
• Ask the court clerk’s office for help. The counter clerk can look records up for you and confirm whether a divorce has been filed. If so, you can get copies of the documents for a small fee.
Contact the courthouse where your spouse lives. If your spouse has moved to another county, you can contact that courthouse. The process is the same, you can contact them in person or by phone. You can also send a records request by mail. You will need to send a letter with both parties’ full legal names and birth dates. It is also good to include the last four digits of the Social Security numbers to cut down on the possibility of duplicate records.
• There may be a fee for this service. Contact the court clerk’s office to find out the cost and how to send payment with your written request.
Make requests in multiple counties. If you do not have an address for your spouse, you can call, visit, or send written requests to multiple counties where you believe your spouse may be living. This is more time-consuming, but may be the only way if you do not have an address.
Contact your local sheriff’s office. One duty of the county sheriff is to act as process server for legal documents. If your spouse is local, in another county, or even another state, they may have sent the divorce documents to the sheriff to serve on you. This is very common because it is economical and easy to arrange.
• If you work odd hours or travel, the sheriff may have been trying to contact you. If you find out the sheriff has divorce papers for you, arrange to pick them up as soon as possible. Avoiding service doesn’t stop the divorce.
Search legal publications. If you and your spouse have been separated for a long time, or you have moved, the court may have allowed your spouse to effect service via publication in the local legal notice newspaper. Every county in the United States has at least one newspaper designated for publication of legal notices.
• Start with the most likely counties first. Where you live and where your spouse lives. Expand your search from there.
• Some states has searchable databases of legal notices. Others will require that you contact the newspaper by phone or in writing.
Hire a professional. Whether you want to hire an attorney to continue your search for a divorce filing or a private investigator to track down your ex so you can ask him or her if a divorce was ever filed, hiring a professional may be a good idea.
Vacating a Default Judgment
If your spouse somehow manages to get a default judgment for divorce because you never knew about the proceedings, all is not lost. Courts order default judgments or decrees when one spouse doesn’t participate in the divorce, often giving the filing spouse everything he asked for in his complaint or petition. But most states give you a period of time to petition the court to set the judgment aside or vacate it, particularly if you never received notice of the proceedings. Your spouse typically must file some sort of proof of service with the court as part of the proceedings, telling the court how he served you. If he didn’t tell the truth or service was by publication, the court will almost certainly grant your petition and reopen the proceedings. In that case, the whole divorce process will start over.
COMPLETING YOUR SEARCH
Contact state Vital Statistics office. If you have been separated with little or no contact for at least a year, there is a chance your spouse may have completed a divorce without your knowledge. She may have lied about not knowing your location and the court granted the divorce by default when you failed to respond. Each state has a vital statistics office where they record all marriages, births, deaths, and final divorces. Some states have searchable databases, others require that you request the information by mail. There may be a fee for this service. Start with the most likely states and work your way out.
• Use your favorite search engine and search “STATE vital statistics”. For example, to find Ohio’s website, search “Ohio vital statistics”.
• If there is a divorce record, it will include the county where it was granted and you can get a copy of the documents.
Plan your next move. If you discover a divorce has been filed, you can’t ignore it. Divorce cases have tight deadlines and if you miss one, you could lose important rights. This is especially true if there is property or children involved.
• Read the documents thoroughly. If you agree with the divorce and do not wish to contest it, contact your spouse or his attorney to finalize the agreements.
• If you want to contest, you should consult with a family law attorney as soon as possible.
Deal with a previously granted divorce. If you discover that a divorce has been granted, you need to get copies of the documents and decree as soon as possible and read them thoroughly.
• If you agree with the divorce, or don’t care, you can let it stand, even if your former spouse lied to get the divorce.
• If you do not agree, you can contact an attorney about modifying or overturning the divorce. Even if the appeal period has passed, if the divorce was gained through fraud, you may be able to vacate the judgment. It is not easy, but may be worth it, for example, if your spouse has considerable financial assets that you would have been entitled to share.
One of the most common lies told in this type of divorce is your spouse saying she couldn’t find you for service and effecting service by publication.
Divorce Attorney Free Consultation
When you need legal help with a Divorce Lawyer in Utah, please call Ascent Law LLC (801) 676-5506 for your Free Consultation. We do child custody cases, divorce cases, and all types of family law. We want help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506
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