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Divorce by Default: Dissolution of Marriage when Your Spouse Doesn't Respond

Anna attended the University of Baltimore Law School and holds a master's of science in mental health counseling.


Default Divorce

When you are filing for divorce, typically, one party files a petition with the court and the other party responds to the divorce papers. However, in some instances, the spouse receiving the divorce papers does not respond. As long as your spouse has received the divorce papers and they have been delivered to him or her in a way prescribed by the law—for example, served by a sheriff or process server—then you may be able to get a divorce by default, which is to say, you can proceed with the divorce without involving your estranged spouse.

Basics of Divorce Cases

The party who files for divorce and initiates the process is known as the petitioner. The other spouse is usually referred to as the respondent. Although the requirements for a divorce petition are different in every state, at its most basic level, this document outlines information about both spouses, as well as the reasons they are divorcing. It will also usually outline the terms of the divorce that the petitioner is requesting—for example, joint custody of children, child support, alimony, or half of the couple’s financial assets.

A divorce petition will typically contain the following information:

  • The name of each spouse
  • The names and dates of birth for any children born out of the marriage
  • The marriage date
  • The date on which the couple separated (that is, established separate residences) if they have already split up
  • The reason the petitioner is asking for a divorce (this can vary depending on which state you are in; some states are "no-fault" states, in which "irreconcilable differences" is generally the only option in terms of a reason for separating)
  • A request for spousal support or child support

The possible grounds for divorce, or the reasons one or both parties wants to end the marriage, vary from state to state. While the “no-fault” states do not require you to list specific reasons for divorcing, other states allow you to end the marriage on specific grounds, such as abuse, adultery, abandonment, incarceration, or substance abuse problems.


Service of Divorce Documents

Once you have prepared your divorce papers and filed them with the court, you will need to have your spouse served with a copy of the paperwork. Each state allows different means of serving divorce papers on a spouse, such as personal service by a law enforcement officer or process server.

Other states allow the divorce papers to be sent by certified mail or with a Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt for them to sign and return to you. After your spouse is served, you will need to provide the court with proof that they have been served—for example, an affidavit signed by the sheriff who delivered the papers or a post office receipt signed by your spouse.

It's important to note that, in most states, you cannot personally serve your spouse with the divorce papers—someone else, such as a law enforcement officer, attorney, or even friend or family member, must serve the documents.

After your spouse receives the divorce papers, he or she will have a state-mandated timeframe in which he or she must file an answer to the divorce papers with the court. This "answer" will give your spouse a chance to respond to any allegations or requests you make in the divorce petition. For example, if your spouse wants full custody of your children rather than joint custody, he or she can request this in their response.

In some cases, your spouse will not respond to the divorce documents. If your spouse does not submit a response to the court in the specified time frame—usually anywhere from 20 to 60 days—you may be able to request a divorce by default. To do so, you will need to file additional paperwork with the clerk of the court where you filed the initial divorce papers.

Requesting a Divorce by Default

Generally, the court will not grant you a divorce simply because your spouse does not respond to your divorce papers. To request that the court enter a divorce by default, you will need to submit a separate petition to the court stating that your spouse did not respond to the divorce petition. You will typically also need to resubmit proof that your spouse was, indeed, served the divorce papers. Depending on where you are located, you may also need to have your spouse served with financial disclosure documents and file these with the court as well.

In some states, the court will not require you to attend a hearing to obtain a divorce by default. This is most common in cases where a couple does not have children or significant shared assets or debts. The court may, however, ask you to attend a hearing where he or she will review your divorce petition. In many instances, you will then be granted a divorce according to the terms outlined in your petition.

Stalling the Divorce Process

In some cases, a spouse who receives divorce papers will attempt to slow down the divorce process by failing to respond to your requests on time. In other words, he or she may respond to the divorce petition a day or two late. If your spouse submits an answer requesting arrangements other than those you requested in the divorce papers, the court may decide to proceed with a typical divorce process rather than granting you a divorce by default.

That said, if you have evidence indicating that the spouse did not have legitimate reasons for submitting his or her response late (for example, an illness or misunderstanding of the legal process), then you may ask the court to enter a motion to hold your spouse in contempt of court. This may be difficult to do unless your spouse is taking extreme measures to hold up the divorce process, such as failing to attend mediation sessions, parenting classes, or other reasonable mandates that are relatively common in divorce cases.

If your spouse is responsive to divorce papers but is continually late and contests most of your requests, the court might ask you and your spouse to attend mediation. During this process, you will, ideally, resolve the contested issues without having to involve a judge. However, if your spouse continues to be uncooperative, it is likely that the court will become involved in some way. Courts generally tend to favor cooperative parties, so even if your spouse is habitually late in responding to your petition or motions, patience and a constructive attitude can work in your favor.


Amending or Dismissing a Divorce Petition

Generally, the spouse who initially submits the divorce petition has the right to amend the divorce petition at any time before the court hearing or before the judge enters the order. The petitioner might choose to do so after speaking with an estranged spouse or simply having a change of heart on matters such as child custody or property division. If the couple attended mediation, this may also lead the filing spouse to want to amend the divorce papers.

You can also reach an agreement regarding the terms of your separation and include those in your final separation agreement. You do not need to amend your petition if your spouse ends up being willing to make and sign an agreement at the conclusion of your divorce case.

Likewise, a petitioner can withdraw the divorce petition at any time before the judge enters a final decree. This may happen when one spouse does not respond to the divorce papers because he or she does not want a divorce and attempts to work things out with the petitioner.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.