Serving Legal Papers In Divorce And Custody Matters — How To Keep It Private

Earlier this week, actress and director Olivia Wilde was center stage introducing her new film at CinemaCon when an audience member approached and slid a manilla envelope towards her, mysteriously labeled “personal and confidential.” Wilde glanced at the papers but kept mum about their contents, leading media in attendance to speculate the envelope contained an unsolicited script or perhaps a fan letter to Wilde’s boyfriend, Harry Styles. A few hours later, however, the truth was revealed: In the middle of a very high profile career-related moment, Wilde had been served with legal papers related to a child custody matter by ex-husband Jason Sudeikis.

Was this serving of legal papers in such a public way avoidable? If you’re about to serve, or be served papers, in your divorce or family law matters, it is important to know what your options are, and how to ensure speedy — and discrete — delivery.

Serving divorce or family court papers in New Jersey

When one spouse files for a divorce or files papers in a related family law matter by submitting required paperwork to the courts, a number of wheels are set in motion. First, the courts review the paperwork and then, if everything has been correctly submitted, assigns the case a docket number. This puts the case “in the system” so it can be assigned hearing dates and begin to move forward.

It’s at this point that the courts require the plaintiff spouse (aka the one who filed) to officially serve notice on the defendant spouse that a case has been filed. In New Jersey, the defendant then has 35 days to respond to the paperwork. If the defendant spouse fails to do so, they are at risk for having a “default judgment” entered again them in court.

New Jersey has very specific laws that instruct the plaintiff how to properly serve legal papers. Generally, there are three options:

1. Service by Sheriff or process server. Papers are served by the sheriff where your spouse lives and/or works or by a professional process server. The sheriff or process server is then responsible for providing proof of service in the form of a sworn affidavit. The affidavit requires detailed information about who was served, what that person looks like, and similar verifying information. Once you receive the affidavit back, you submit it to the courts as proof of service.

If you give your spouse a heads up, service can typically be arranged for discrete delivery at home. For example, ask your spouse when and where they would prefer to be served, and give this information to the process server — the process server will almost certainly welcome the convenience. It also reduces the element of surprise, which can be a trigger for negative emotions right off the bat in the divorce. This is often true when the surprise serving of papers happens at work in full view of colleagues or when the defendant is caught off guard in public.

2. Service between attorneys. In situations where both spouses already have attorneys at the beginning of the divorce process, the filing and serving of the legal papers can simply be handled between attorneys. Both you and your spouse would need to sign an agreement that service of papers from your attorney to their attorney is acceptable. Your attorney will have your spouse’s attorney sign documentation that paperwork was received on their client’s behalf. The courts will accept this as proof of service.

3. Formal agreement to service between you and your spouse. This may be applicable if neither of you have an attorney, or only one of you does. You might say to your spouse, “I have filed for divorce and hired an attorney. I have the legal paperwork for you to read and respond to. Will you sign a statement indicating that you received the summons and Complaint for Divorce once my attorneys sends them to you, so that I don’t have to have a process server track you down and serve you personally?” This can be a good way to get a divorce off to an amicable start, but a proper agreement acknowledging service must be signed — in writing! — so that it can be submitted to the courts.

Given these options, it’s unclear why Olivia Wilde was served custody papers in such a public way. Typically, this type of service would be reserved for situations where there is no known last address for the defendant or the defendant is actively avoiding being served. When there is a problem with completing legal service, judges may agree to measures such as putting a public notice of legal service in the newspaper classified ads. In other situations where it is difficult to track down a spouse, the courts may allow a personal third party who has contact with the defendant to accept the papers (i.e., a relative) or may even allow serving legal papers through Facebook private message.

The bottom line, if you do not know where your spouse is located, do not give up as the court will look for proof that your spouse was legally served. Without that proof, your case will not proceed.

The papers served to Olivia Wilde reportedly concerned establishing jurisdiction in the former couple’s ongoing custody matter. If it feels like what happened on stage was all just a mix up, perhaps that’s exactly what is was. According to People, “Mr. Sudeikis had no prior knowledge of the time or place that the envelope would have been delivered as this would solely be up to the process service company involved and he would never condone her being served in such an inappropriate manner.”

Do you have questions about filing for divorce or the best way to serve legal papers on your spouse? Our family law specialist attorneys are here to answer all your questions. To schedule an initial attorney consultation, please call us at 888-888-019, or click the green button below.

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