The marriage wasn't working and you separated months ago, even years, and you have both moved on with your life. You decide that it's time to get a divorce, but you don't know the whereabouts of your former spouse. There is now an alternative to hiring a private investigator. In a growing number of cases, judges are giving the go ahead to serving divorce papers on difficult-to-find spouses through their possibly easier-to-find online home at Facebook.
In today's connected world, approximately 51 percent of the US population are active users of the social network, spending an average of 40 minutes per day posting, liking and sharing on the site. For so many of us, our Facebook profile has become our online "home address" no matter where we may move to or live. And while this might be a nice sentiment...that our friends and family can still reach us wherever we end up...there is growing acceptance in the legal community that a Facebook account may be viewed as a valid address for the service of divorce papers, just like a street address or work location.
In other words, could the kick off to your divorce be a Facebook message away?
It was for Ellanora Baidoo, one of the first spouses allowed to use Facebook to serve divorce papers. In her 2015 landmark case, Baidoo v. Blood-Dzraku, Ms. Baidoo explained to the courts in New York that she was unable to serve divorce papers on her estranged husband of seven years, Victor Blood-Dzraku, because she could not locate his address. Despite efforts that included hiring of a private investigator to track him down, all Baidoo knew was Blood-Dzraku's cell phone number and his Facebook address. As a last ditch attempt, she requested permission to serve papers through Facebook.
The judge agreed, stating in his ruling that the "advent and ascendency of social media," has made social networking sites like Facebook and even Twitter the "next frontier" of "forums through which a summons can be delivered."
Besides keeping up with the times, legal service through Facebook may also offer distinct advantages over other forms of legal service. For example, if the judge had not agreed to the serving of papers through Facebook, Ms. Baidoo's other recourse of last resort would have been to serve legal notice through publication in a local newspaper, the traditional alternative for issuing notice of divorce when a spouse's address is unknown. In Brooklyn where Ms. Baidoo lives, this would have meant taking out a legal notice ad in the New York Daily News at a cost of approximately $1000 per notice. In contrast, sending a Facebook message is free.
Facebook also adds a layer of accountability. Placing a legal notice in the newspaper offers no assurance that the person in question actually sees the notice. In Baidoo's case this was especially a concern as she was uncertain whether her husband still lived in the United States or had returned to his native Ghana. On Facebook, however, a handy little "Seen" message and timestamp pop up when the message is viewed by the recipient -- no matter where that person may be in the world. Because of this, Baidoo was able to verify that divorce papers had in fact been delivered to her husband.
Drawbacks to serving papers through Facebook? The major one is verifying that the account indeed belongs to the person being served. This was addressed in the Baidoo case by the judge requiring Ms. Baidoo to show evidence of the account's ownership, which she did by providing photos and messages from Blood-Dzraku that had been regularly posted and sent through the account. Facebook may also present certain privacy issues, of course. But the courts seem to view this in the context that posting in a newspaper offers no privacy at all.
Since the Baidoo case, other spouses in similar situations have petitioned the courts successfully to use Facebook service. Even in this day and age when so many details of a person's life are just a Google search away, in family law cases, difficulty finding a defendant's address or work location remains an issue when one spouse "walks out" on a marriage without providing a new address. Courts have started allowing service by email in this type of situation, but if someone truly doesn't want to be found, they may change their email address as well. If the person remains active on social media, this provides an additional option for contact.
Serving a spouse who has moved to a foreign country can likewise be complicated. Even in the simplest case, special forms may be required, papers may need translating, and the foreign central authority may charge a fee for service. All of this makes service by social media particularly appealing and potentially cost-effective in an international case.
But even with this lower cost and increased ease, Facebook will likely remain a "service of last resort" for the foreseeable future. Person-to-person service (through a process server or Sheriff) or service via certified mail remain discrete and direct. In cases where these forms of legal service are not possible, however, Facebook is providing a way to lift the burden of people stuck in situations where their spouse seems to have vanished from the face of the earth.
How do you know if Facebook might be a viable alternative in your divorce?
1. Talk to your attorney about your options and prior to pursuing this service method,
2. Be prepared to prove due diligence in attempts at personal service, and
3. Provide proof of ownership of the Facebook account and frequency of use.
If tracking down your spouse has felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, the increasing acceptance of Facebook for legal service may be the equivalent of using a strong magnet to search the hay. After all, with more than 1.7 billion users around the globe, where there is an internet signal, there are people checking their Facebook messages. Is your hard-to-find spouse one of them?