Can You Start A Divorce Action On Facebook?
by Matthew Solomon, Esq.
In a March of 2015 ruling that is as groundbreaking as it is inevitable, a judge in New York (in the case, Baidoo v. Blood-Dzraku) allowed a woman to serve divorce papers on her estranged husband of six years. What might, at first, seem like a bizarre and unwise decision by a lower court judge actually is a well-structured and rational ruling that seeks to adapt a procedural aspect of divorce to the technology of social media.
The first step in a divorce is for the plaintiff to “serve” the defendant. In other words, the person filing the divorce is required to notify their current spouse that they have filed paperwork with the court by delivering a copy of the paperwork to the other spouse. One of the most common problems that people have is locating the person they are trying to have served. Given that divorce can be time-consuming and expensive, any delay in service will only add to the cost and time involved.
The plaintiff in New York had a particularly challenging situation because her husband had no known address, no known place of work or business, and no known relatives. New York’s Domestic Relations Law allows plaintiffs to request permission to use one of three alternative methods of service rather than the traditional in-hand delivery method. The first two methods require that a plaintiff know of a defendant’s “actual place of business, dwelling or usual abode.” The third method involves publication of the paperwork in a newspaper selected by the court, once a week for three weeks. The plaintiff in Baidoo attempted the first two methods of service, but was unable to locate her husband. Further, the court agreed with the Wife that the chance that the defendant would ever see the publication in a newspaper was slim to none regardless of what newspaper the Wife publicized in and did not require that the Wife publicize at all.
Fortunately for the wife in Baidoo, plaintiffs in New York also have the option to request alternate service in addition to the three already mentioned methods. That is exactly what the wife did, and the court permitted her to create her own method of service that was appropriate for this particular situation. In making its decision, the court determined that it was an “impossibility” to personally deliver the summons on the defendant. The court also stated that the plaintiff had to prove that sending the summons through Facebook can reasonably be expected to give the defendant actual notice that he is being sued for divorce.
The court also had to address the Federal constitutional principles underlying services of process. As the court said, “The central question is whether the method by which the plaintiff seeks to serve the defendant comports with the fundamentals of due process by being reasonably calculated to provide defendant with notice of the divorce.” The Wife was granted permission to serve the defendant with the divorce summons using a private message through Facebook. The transmittal of the summons was to be done by Wife’s attorney, and was to be repeated once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged by the defendant.
There is no denying the role that technology plays in the world and there is no slowing down its impact on all aspects of our lives. For the court to recognize these facts, apply it to this procedural problem in divorces, and then carve a limited exception that seems to understand how social media can be a valuable tool to the courts is extremely encouraging and exciting.
As this is a lower court New York state decision, anyone contemplating Facebook service should consult with an attorney in the state of the divorce action, and rely on the court’s specific ordering, and conditioning of the order with other requirements, if any. And it is important not to attempt Facebook service until you have a court order permitting it in hand.
©2015 Matthew Solomon. All rights reserved.