How to File for a Divorce When the Other Party Is Not Available in Pennsylvania

By Tom Streissguth

If you are seeking a divorce in Pennsylvania, but are unable to locate your spouse, you must follow the state’s procedure for divorce by publication. The process takes some extra steps to ensure you’ve made a good-faith effort to locate your spouse; otherwise, the basic court forms and procedures are the same as when you file a typical, simple divorce.

File a complaint and cover sheet in the civil court that has jurisdiction over your county of residence. You must be a bona-fide resident of Pennsylvania. State law allows for no-fault divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences or at-fault divorce with several grounds, including abandonment or imprisonment of your spouse for two years or longer.

Follow the state’s requirements for a “diligent search” by checking for your spouse's forwarding addresses at the post office. You may also check voter registration records, tax rolls, driver’s license records, and telephone directories -- both hard copy and online. Question friends, relatives, service providers, such as doctors, or professional acquaintances of your spouse, as well as former employers or colleagues.

Complete an Affidavit of Diligent Search, a notarized statement describing your search. List the steps you’ve taken to find your spouse and the final results of your search. The Affidavit must convince a judge that you have sincerely tried and failed to find your spouse.

File a Motion for Service by Publication. You must file the Affidavit of Diligent Search along with the Motion. If the court accepts the Affidavit and Motion, the clerk will issue an Order of Publication.

Publish a notice in a local, general circulation newspaper which will run the notice as a classified ad under “Legal Notices” or a similar rubric. The newspaper must circulate in the county of your spouse’s last known legal residence. Pennsylvania state law also requires that notice be arranged in a legal publication at the court’s direction.

Wait for an answer to the divorce petition from your missing spouse. If no answer is forthcoming, your divorce petition will be reviewed in court and, ultimately, granted by default along with its legal provisions for the division of assets, child custody and support payments.

Items you will need

  • Divorce complaint

  • Affidavit of diligent search

  • Motion for service by publication


The help of an experienced attorney, as well as a private investigator, is useful when filing for divorce by publication. The courts and their clerks will not offer advice other than procedural instructions and locating a missing spouse is difficult without professional assistance.


If you manage to locate your spouse, you must serve him with a copy of the divorce complaint, either by personal service or certified mail. Once he is served, you must follow the usual Pennsylvania divorce procedures.