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What Happens if Spouse Doesn’t Sign Divorce Papers?

selective focus of couple sitting at table with divorce documents

It’s a common trope in movies and television: Our hero or heroine wants to simply move on with their life, but their ex refuses to sign the divorce papers. Conflicts and hijinks ensue. In real life, does one spouse actually hold that much power over the divorce? Can one party simply refuse to “sign the papers,” and stop the divorce from happening? As explained by our New Jersey divorce legal team below, reality is, predictably, not what you see on TV.

Starting the Divorce Process

Spouses in New Jersey can file for divorce without alleging or proving “fault.” The ground for no-fault divorce is known as “irreconcilable differences.” In fact, alleging that the parties disagree about whether to divorce is, in itself, proof of irreconcilable differences.

Contrary to presentation in popular culture, divorce does not require the consent of both parties. Instead, one party can file a Complaint for Divorce on their own. The Complaint operates like a complaint in any other civil lawsuit: It lays out the legal grounds for the lawsuit and the sought-after relief. And, just like a personal injury lawsuit after a car accident, the defendant does not need to “consent” to the lawsuit. Instead, the plaintiff needs only to satisfy their legal and procedural obligations, which then trigger a different set of legal obligations for the defendant.

Filing and Serving the Complaint

The Complaint for Divorce will lay out the basics of the divorce: the spouses involved, shared children, date and place of marriage, ground for divorce, and other relevant information. It will also identify the sought-after relief (dissolution of marriage, separation of assets, etc.). You and your New Jersey divorce attorney will file the Complaint in court, along with a handful of other important documents (a confidential litigant sheet, certification of insurance coverage, a notification about out-of-court dispute resolution options).

After filing the Complaint, the party initiating the divorce must “serve” the complaint on the other spouse. Service can be achieved by sending the complaint and relevant papers through certified mail, the spouse’s attorney, or the sheriff’s office. Your attorney will make sure that service is accomplished legally and appropriately. If the defendant is not properly “served,” they can challenge the validity of the divorce case, creating unnecessary delays.

The Other Spouse’s Legal Obligations

Once your spouse receives the complaint, they have a few options. They can file an Answer to the Complaint, agreeing or disagreeing with the statements made in the Complaint; they can file an Appearance to challenge certain provisions in the Complaint (child custody, alimony, etc.); they can file a Counterclaim asserting some other grounds for divorce (along with an Answer to the Complaint); or they can do nothing. They have certain time limits to follow after receiving the Complaint for each action, depending on how service was accomplished.

What if My Spouse Ignores the Complaint for Divorce?

If someone fails to respond to a divorce complaint after being properly served, like any other lawsuit, the plaintiff can file a request for “default judgment.” A default judgment essentially grants the relief sought in the complaint because the defendant has chosen not to defend their side of the case. Default judgments prevent a party from avoiding a lawsuit by simply ignoring it.

If the defendant has not filed an Answer or otherwise responded to the complaint within the requisite time period after service, the plaintiff can file a request for default judgment. The plaintiff must assert that the complaint was properly served on their spouse, the defendant is not in the military, and the defendant did not respond. The court will set a hearing date for the default proceeding; the defendant must be notified of the hearing date.

The plaintiff must still provide documents and other evidence supporting their side of the case, including financial information about assets and debts, evidence supporting child support and alimony awards, a plan for custody and parenting time, and documents supporting a plan for equitable distribution of property. At the default hearing, the plaintiff (by way of their attorney) will still need to convince the court that their proposed resolution of all divorce issues is legal, fair, and just.

If the court is persuaded by the plaintiff, and the defendant still fails to show up and provide a defense, then the court may issue a default judgment. The default judgment will award the plaintiff their requested relief, including dissolution of the marriage and resolution of the various financial and child custody matters. The court may, of course, make adjustments to the plaintiff’s sought-after relief if there are concerns about legality or fairness.

Experienced Legal Help for Your New Jersey Divorce

If you need seasoned and talented legal help with divorce mediation, paternity, child custody, premarital agreements, child support, alimony, or other family law matters in New Jersey, contact the Union offices of family law attorney John B. D’Alessandro at 908-964-0102.

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