How to File for Divorce in South Carolina When the Spouse's Residence Is Unknown

By Beverly Bird

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Not all spouses run immediately to the courthouse to file for divorce when they separate. You might live apart for a while, then ultimately decide to make things official and legally end your marriage. If you've lost track of your spouse in the meantime, you can still get a divorce in South Carolina. It's just a matter of taking a few more steps.

Beginning the Process

All South Carolina divorces begin with the filing of a summons and complaint for divorce. The complaint details the reason you feel the court should grant you a divorce – your grounds – and lists what you would like the court to award you, such as custody or a fair division of property. If you and your spouse have lived apart for at least a year, you can file on South Carolina's no-fault grounds of separation. The summons simply tells your spouse that you've filed for divorce. It explains what he should do in response, and how long he has to do so.

Attempting Service

After you've filed your complaint with the court, you must attempt service of process, even if you're not sure where your spouse is currently residing. He has a right to know you've filed and to respond with his own requests. South Carolina law allows three types of service: you can have the county sheriff deliver the paperwork to him, use a private process server or send the papers by certified mail. If you don't know where your spouse is, the sheriff is not going to be able to find him nor will a private process server be able to do so. You must arrange for them to try, however. In addition to their efforts, you must mail a copy of your divorce papers to your ex's last known address, return receipt requested.

Petitioning the Court

After you've attempted all three methods of service, you'll have to do a little detective work. Go online to social network sites to see if you can find a hint of your ex or get some idea of where he's currently living. Use a search engine to see if you can get a hit on his name. Enlist the services of a private detective if you can afford it. Check public records, do a telephone search, and check with his last known employer as well as any known family members. When you've exhausted every effort, you've completed a diligent search for your spouse, so you can now ask the court to allow you to serve him by publication. This involves filing a petition for an order by publication, and you must also file an affidavit explaining everything you did to try to find your spouse and attach proof of your efforts.

Service by Publication

If a judge believes you did everything possible to find your ex, he'll issue you an order for service by publication. Take the order, as well as a copy of your summons, to a newspaper. The court will tell you which paper to use in its order – it's usually the one serving the county where your spouse was last known to have lived or where he's most likely to notice it. Under South Carolina law, you must run a copy of the summons notice in the paper once a week for three consecutive weeks.


After you've run your notice in the newspaper for the required period of time, the newspaper will issue you an affidavit of publication, certifying that you've done so. Your next step is to file this with the court. Thirty days after the last day your notice appeared in the paper, you can file an affidavit of default with the court, asking a judge to grant you a divorce regardless of the fact that you couldn't serve your spouse personally.