By Jedidiah McKeehan
Sometimes someone will come to me very upset and tell me they want to get divorced but they have not seen their spouse in years and years and they do not know how to serve them with divorce paperwork.

Some of these people believe there is no way for them to get divorced because they cannot locate their spouse.  Thankfully, there is a way for them to get divorced.

Tennessee Code Annotated sections 21-1-203, 21-1-204 and 21-1-205 explain how you serve someone when you do not know where they live.  It is a multi-step process, but it can be done.

First, you must try to serve the Defendant at the last address where they lived.  If this works, great, but if they still lived there, you would have served them long ago.  So, then you will get a notice back from the Court that the Defendant was not to be found at that address.

The next step is to file a motion with the Court requesting that the Defendant be served by publication (running a notice in the newspaper that someone has sued them for divorce).  You will actually have to appear before the judge with your attorney and tell the judge you have no idea where the Defendant is living.

Assuming the judge believes you, then you can serve the Defendant by running a notice in a newspaper local to the Defendant’s last known address for four weeks.  The notice must contain specific language explaining what has been filed, the names of the parties, and the location of the Court where the lawsuit has been filed.

Once publication has run for four weeks, then the Defendant is considered served.  Now, we all know that the Defendant is unlikely to read this newspaper notice and respond by filing anything with the Court, but this is what the law allows to get Defendants served whose whereabouts are unknown.

Once the Defendant has been considered served, after their time for responding to the divorce has passed, the person suing for divorce can file a motion for default judgment and mail it to that original last known address they had for the Defendant.  Again, we all know the Defendant will not get that motion either.

Then the person suing for divorce can show up with their attorney on the day their motion for default judgment is scheduled and the judge will grant them a divorce.  They have just obtained a divorce from someone when they have absolutely no clue where the Defendant lives.  Congratulations!


Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.