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    May 31, 2023
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    Process Service
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    Andrew Linden

The Perils of Pocket Service in Washington State

Can you be defaulted the same day a lawsuit is filed? Yes. Learn about Washington State’s legal quirk that catches litigants off guard every year.

In the realm of family law in Washington State, a unique legal term one may encounter is “pocket service”. So unique, in fact, that most attorney’s aren’t even aware of the concept. By better understanding pocket service, you can navigate the challenging landscape of family law with greater ease and confidence.

The term “pocket service” originated from the practice of literally keeping legal papers in one’s pocket, rather than filing them with the court immediately. In contemporary use, it refers to a procedure where a party serves another party with legal documents but doesn’t immediately file them with the court.

Here’s how pocket service typically works in a family law case. Let’s say John Doe has decided to divorce Jane Doe. John has his attorney prepare the necessary documents, including a summons and a petition for dissolution of marriage. Once prepared, signed, and dated, these finalized papers are then served on Jane through a process server. However, John’s attorney does not immediately file these documents with the court, leaving the case number blank. Instead, they are “kept in the pocket.”

Jane doesn’t know it yet, but the clock is ticking. She now has 20 days to file her response or risk default. If she were to disregard the papers, John’s attorney can file the paperwork and enter a default judgement on day 21. Washington courts reason that Jane was aware of the pending legal action and received the required notice – she can therefore lose the case before it is ever filed.

But how does Jane file a response if the case hasn’t yet been initiated with the court? She doesn’t have a case number! Great question. On the Summons Jane received, she is informed that she can demand that John’s attorney file the case within a few days of her request. If he doesn’t initiate the case so she can enter her response, the service she received is considered void and she can’t be defaulted.

Advantages: Pocket service is best used in circumstances where deviousness and stealth is called for. It is such a powerful tool because most Washington attorneys do not even realize it is permitted – meaning even represented parties to run afoul of the law. We recommend pocket service when the circumstances are hostile and there is a lot at stake financially or personally for our client’s.

Disadvantages: However, it’s crucial to understand that pocket service is not always advantageous, and it can have potential drawbacks. For instance, during the “pocket” period, there is no court protection or oversight, which might put a party at risk when issues of physical safety or dissipation of martial assets are paramount. Further, courts are not huge fans of defaults on principle, so it can sometimes be a delicate balancing act to enforce the default judgements that result.

Defense Against Pocket Service: Keep in mind that the summons and petition (or complaint if this is a civil action) must be signed and dated. If the initiating documents aren’t duly complete, they are not considered proper service. Additionally, sending a notice of appearance to the party concerned can make it difficult for them to default you.

If you find yourself on either side of a pocket service situation, it’s critical to consult with an attorney who understands the nuances and potential implications of this strategy. Understanding the implications of pocket service can help you navigate your family law case more effectively and could potentially impact the outcome of your case.

If you are looking for legal guidance in the Seattle area, contact the Hemmat Law Group today at (206) 682-5200 to speak with a dedicated family law attorney. We have extensive experience dealing with process service disputes and we can ensure your interests are guarded.


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The Hemmat Law Group (HLG) was founded in 1994 by Steven Amir Hemmat, a former DOJ Trial Attorney. We specialize in family law, supporting victims of the legal system.


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Article by Andrew Linden
Associate Attorney