SAN DIEGO, July 30, 2015 – We don’t know whether Ellanora Baidoo of Brooklyn is divorced yet, but thanks to Facebook and a Manhattan Supreme Court justice, at least she isn’t in marriage limbo. What happened to Baidoo could help keep you from being in marriage limbo too.
Baidoo, 26, was given permission to serve her husband Victor Blood-Dzraku, 27, a divorce summons via Facebook by Justice Matthew Cooper. According to Justice Cooper in his written ruling, “[P]laintiff is granted permission to serve defendant with the divorce summons using a private message through Facebook … This transmittal shall be repeated by plaintiff’s attorney to defendant once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged by the defendant. Additionally, after the initial transmittal, plaintiff and her attorney are to call and text message defendant to inform him that the summons for divorce has been sent to him via Facebook.”
It was an unusual situation. Baidoo and Blood-Dzraku, both originally from Ghana, were married in a civil ceremony in 2009, but they never consummated the marriage or lived together due to conflicts over Ghanian marriage traditions. But the two kept in touch via telephone and Facebook.
Baidoo couldn’t find an address or locate her legal husband when she finally decided to legally divorce him. After trying everything she could think of, her attorney Andrew J. Spinnell came up with this creative solution, and the court agreed with him.
From my perspective as an experienced divorce attorney, “Yuck!” was my first response. Then, “Really?” But once I calmed down a bit, I thought, “Sure, why not?” Count on legal service by social media becoming more common in your state, and here’s why.
The state places a high priority on serving notice of a divorce action by personal delivery. Anyone over 18 years old who is not the plaintiff can do it. The state wants to insure that a person being sued for divorce be made aware the action and given the opportunity to respond and participate, because it can have significant financial and personal family consequences. But for this to happen, the plaintiff needs to know where to find the defendant. Sometimes it’s plain impossible for a process server to make personal delivery successful. So there have always been reasonable alternatives.
The next step is service via U.S. mail, either by first-class mail with a signed and returned acknowledgement of receipt, or certified mail with a return receipt.
In California and the majority of states, you can serve divorce papers via “publication” once you have proven that you have done your due diligence in trying to serve your soon-to-be-ex spouse by other means, but have been unsuccessful. Publication used to mean in a local newspaper. You would take out a classified ad, and hope your spouse would read it. It must be published once a week for four consecutive weeks with at least five days between publications.
But snail mail and newspapers are becoming a thing of the past. Email has all but replaced written communication by mail; online news and social media are fast replacing newspapers. It’s time for the law to catch up. Just a decade ago, it was considered revolutionary for courts to allow a summons in a civil case to be sent by email. It’s still considered “alternate service” by many courts. But we are getting there.
Now let’s add the reality of social media in our lives. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others play a major role providing day-to-day information. When was the last time you checked your social media account? When was the last time you read the newspaper classifieds?
I rest my case.
Currently, people need to get approval from a judge for divorce service by publication, after convincing him or her you’ve done everything possible but cannot find the defendant. Some of the steps you’re expected to take to prove you conducted a thorough search effort:
- Searching the phone book. Seriously, who has a phone book anymore?
- You contacted friends and relatives to find the location of the missing spouse. Chances are good they haven’t seen him or her, but might be in contact via – you guessed it, social media.
- You asked the post office or DMV for a forwarding address. Someone who wants to disappear isn’t going to bother with this anymore. You can do everything, including pay bills, online.
- You contacted voter registration, former employers, or landlords.
- You checked tax collection and property records.
- You employed a private investigator to find the person.
Why should you have to go to these lengths and expense? The modern world has changed. According to her attorney Andrew Spinnell, Ellanora Baidoo tried all this with no luck, but she could contact her husband via Facebook with success. “We tried everything, including hiring a private detective — and nothing,” Spinnell said.
We are living in a brave new cyber society. This was bound to happen sometime. Most people don’t get their news by newspaper anymore. “Publication” service should catch up as well. I am all for it on a case-by-case basis when service cannot be achieved in the traditional way.
If you find yourself in this situation, it’s best to work with a divorce attorney who can help you with the legal filing needed to get an Order of Publication issues to you, whether it’s the old-fashioned way or something more forward-thinking.
Myra Chack Fleischer serves as lead counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby in Carlsbad, Calif., with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in Communities Digital News. Follow Myra on Twitter: @LawyerMyra. Fleischer can be reached via Google +
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