July 2012 Bar Bulletin
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July 2012 Bar Bulletin

Service by Mail in Divorce after Ralph's Concrete

By Mark Alexander


Can service by mail on an out-of-state spouse with no Washington connections produce a valid Washington decree dissolving the marriage? The Division One ruling in Ralph's Concrete Pumping, Inc., v. Concord Concrete Pumps, Inc.1 has led some attorneys to view as void any default decree obtained through service by mail on Washington nonresidents.

However, analysis of the decision does not support its extension to marriage dissolutions.

In Ralph's Concrete, plaintiff Ralph's mailed the complaint and summons to Concord (a British Columbia corporation) in a civil suit for damages. Reversing a default money judgment, the court ruled that Ralph's service by mail under CR 4 did not confer personal jurisdiction.

Concord argues that the default judgment against it should be vacated for lack of personal jurisdiction because Ralph's failed to comply with Washington's long-arm statute, RCW 4.28.185, which requires personal service and an affidavit attesting that service cannot be made within the state. We agree.

A Washington court may assert personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant if the long-arm statute is satisfied and if the assumption of jurisdiction meets the requirements of due process by comporting with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.2

In contrast, the decision devotes two pages to distinguishing the different outcome in a dissolution matter, Marriage of Tsarbopoulos.3 In that case, the court upheld the court's authority to dissolve the marriage, but found insufficient connections to enter child support or property awards against the respondent.

A proceeding dissolving marital bonds is a proceeding in rem. Where one party is domiciled in the state, the court has jurisdiction over the marriage and may dissolve it, even though the court is unable to obtain in personam jurisdiction over the nonresident spouse.... By contrast, child support and property dispositions both require in personam jurisdiction over the affected person.4

Although the relief granted may be limited and its conditions must be met, Washington law permits service by mail or by publication in a dissolution action. Service by publication or by mail generally does not give the court personal jurisdiction.5

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