Did you hear? You can get divorced on Facebook now.”
“Yeah, I read the article.”
I overheard this brief (and misleading) exchange recently. Two women were referring to a recently decided New York Supreme Court case, Baidoo vs. Blood-Dzraku.
Many of us are on Facebook. If you are reading this column, maybe you’re getting divorced. Will this case affect you?
Baidoo vs. Blood-Dzraku involves “service of process.” In other words, notifying someone that an action (here, a divorce action) has been instituted against him, and that he is required to respond to it. The question raised was whether one spouse can inform the other of a divorce action using Facebook. And only Facebook.
Justice Matthew F. Cooper, in his decision, said that the preferred method for serving a summons in a divorce action is personal delivery to the defendant. This reflects the great emphasis that this state places on insuring that a person who is being sued for divorce — a proceeding that can have immeasurable financial and familial consequences — be made aware of and afforded the opportunity to appear in the action.
But personal service isn’t always possible; for instance, when one spouse doesn’t know where the other is. Under such circumstances, alternative service is allowed. With the court’s permission, a summons can be delivered to a person other than the spouse at the spouse’s workplace or home.
Or, the summons can be affixed to a door at one of these places, and a copy mailed to a spouse’s last known address or actual place of business (“nail and mail” service). Then there is publication service, where the summons is printed in a newspaper designated by the court. The idea is that, if the spouse cannot be notified in another way, maybe he will find out about it by reading that newspaper.
The law does allow a court to go beyond these methods and to devise one “that fits the particular circumstances of the case” — but only if the usual methods are shown to be “impracticable.”
To get permission to use a private Facebook message as her sole method of service, Ellanora Baidoo, the wife in this case, had to offer evidence and persuade the judge that, in her situation, the other methods of service wouldn’t work, and that the social media site was likely to. And, she succeeded.
The judge found that, although the parties married in 2009, they never resided together, and the last address the wife had for him was an apartment he vacated in 2011.
By phone — they spoke occasionally — her husband had told her that “he has no fixed address or place of employment. He has also refused to make himself available to be served with divorce papers,” according to the court.
Further, investigative firms had all been unsuccessful in their efforts: the post office had no forwarding address for him, there was no billing address for his pre-paid cellphone, and the Department of Motor Vehicles had no record of him.
After having convinced the court that the more traditional methods of service were not viable, Baidoo still had to show that her proposed manner of serving her husband was “reasonably calculated to apprise [her husband] that he is being sued for divorce.”
The court had concerns: could the wife have fabricated the husband’s Facebook account? If the account was legitimate, what if he rarely used it? Baidoo was able to allay these concerns.
Still, the question remained: could service on Facebook really be the only means of service? No court had ever allowed this. Should publication service also be required?
Justice Cooper said, no, publication service can be expensive, “and the chances of it being seen by [the husband], buried in an obscure section of the paper and printed in small type are … infinitesimal.”
And so, new law was made.
New York City and Long Island-based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabi
Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.