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How Do I Get a Divorce If My Spouse Won’t Sign the Papers

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

“My spouse won’t sign the divorce papers.”

If you’re initiating your divorce by filing papers as step one (which isn’t always the case), you were probably hoping to avoid this scenario. When one party refuses to sign papers or participate in the divorce process, it can lead to legal delays, extra expenses, and stress. 

It can also leave you wondering whether their lack of cooperation will derail the process entirely.   

But rest assured: with some proactive steps (and a few deep breaths or true crime podcasts, depending on what calms your nerves), you can keep your divorce moving forward.  

What does “signing divorce papers” mean?  

The divorce process involves numerous legal steps, but an important one in terms of “signing” is filing the complaint, which informs the court about your intent to legally dissolve your marriage. 

After the complaint is filed, your former partner is served with the divorce papers, which include a copy of the complaint and the summons (official notice of the divorce proceedings). 

In New Jersey, your spouse has 35 days to respond once they receive the divorce paperwork. They can respond with an: 

  • Answer, which responds or contests what’s in the complaint 
  • Answer and counterclaim, which responds but adds your additional grounds for divorce and your requested relief 
  • Appearance, which means your spouse isn’t contesting the actual dissolution of your marriage but wants to be heard on specific issues (like alimony, custody, parenting time, and equitable distribution)

If they don’t respond in one of these three ways, though, this can be considered not “signing” the divorce papers. The technical term for this in the legal process is “defaulting.” 

But this isn’t the only point at which your spouse might try to avoid moving forward with the divorce. 

This can also occur when it comes time to sign the Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA). The MSA is the set of documents finalizing your divorce that details issues like child support, division of property, alimony, and more. Refusal at this point can be particularly frustrating, as it often follows extensive conversation and negotiation.

“Not signing” isn’t always “not signing”

Besides explicitly refusing to submit papers addressing their participation in the divorce, your spouse may: 

  • Avoid service of divorce papers 
  • Ignore communication or engage in stonewalling
  • Request unnecessary continuances
  • File frivolous motions 
  • Switch lawyers to reset the legal processes

Can you still get a divorce if your spouse won’t respond to the complaint or sign the MSA?  

The short answer is yes, you can still get divorced. 

You do not have to stay married because your spouse won’t participate in the divorce. Nor does it mean they get to dictate the terms of the divorce by refusing to be involved. 

Under New Jersey law, divorce cases can proceed even if one spouse does not want to or refuses to submit any paperwork. This process may result in some additional steps and legal strategy, but the important thing is that the divorce can proceed. 

How does the divorce process work in these situations? 

Regardless of when you file a complaint, your spouse has 35 days to respond. If they don’t comply with this timeframe, your attorney can request a default judgment from the court, resulting in a divorce decree. 

At this stage, you are obligated to submit to the court a list of all of the relief you are requesting, together with documentation supporting your requests. At that point, the court typically holds a hearing to take testimony and review your claims. As long as your proposed terms appear fair based on all evidence provided, the judge will grant your divorce. 

Often, the judge will grant the relief you request, but sometimes, based on the testimony and the evidence presented, they may modify what you’ve proposed as outcomes and order something similar but not necessarily identical. 

The good news? If you’ve waited until you’ve settled your case to file, you may not need to go through this process, even if your spouse doesn’t want to “sign” the papers. If you’ve got a signed settlement agreement, many county courts in New Jersey allow you to “skip” the hearing process and submit your signed agreement with your divorce complaint. 

Often, your spouse can sign a waiver of the thirty-five-day response period, and the court can divorce you “on the papers.” 

What steps should I take if my spouse is unwilling to cooperate?

Knowing that there is an exit ramp ahead doesn’t always make it less frustrating when your former partner refuses to respond to a complaint or sign the MSA for your divorce. Here are a few steps you can take to reduce your stress and encourage forward motion. 

Look at the “why” behind their actions

You may be at a point where you’re simply ready to move on, but taking the time to understand the reasoning behind your soon-to-be ex’s decision can help you and your attorney craft a more effective legal strategy.

For example, if there’s a draft MSA circulating, but your spouse keeps coming up with reasons not to execute it, try to delve into the specific obstacles. If your spouse is worried about their parenting time, consider discussing alternative solutions to ease their concerns. Mediation may also be a helpful strategy; a trained, neutral third party can help you and your soon-to-be find a mutually agreeable path forward.   

Importantly, mediation may be able to improve communication between you both. When your spouse understands you’re willing to listen and that their concerns are being taken seriously, they may be more inclined to cooperate. 

Make sure you and your attorney are on the same page 

It’s important to keep your attorney informed of your spouse’s behavior and any new developments. For example, if you’ve served papers but your spouse is making comments about refusing to respond to the complaint, let your attorney know as soon as possible so they can start evaluating contingency plans.

Note: it’s important to document communications as much as possible during divorce. However, talk with your attorney about the best ways to do that, as each situation is different.

Evaluate what your goals are  

When going through a divorce, it’s vital to have clear goals—but it’s essential if you think your soon-to-be ex might not cooperate. Setting clear goals helps you prioritize what’s important and focus on practical, realistic solutions.

If it seems like your spouse is stonewalling out of spite, it might feel natural to push back harder. Still, if certain issues matter to you (say, for example, protecting your stake in the retirement funds you worked hard to accumulate), it’s important to stay focused on getting what you need rather than trying to retaliate.

Consider mediation

If your spouse is amenable to it, you can work through some or all aspects of the divorce through mediation

In mediation, a neutral third party helps you and your spouse reach mutually acceptable solutions. It can often help de-stress the divorce process. A mediator may also assist in addressing the underlying issues that caused them to avoid the divorce process in the first place. 

Mediation is also often less stressful than litigation and allows you to personalize your timeline, meaning you can work through issues at your own pace.  

De-stress the divorce process with Jacobs Berger

When one party refuses to engage in the divorce process, it can create added stress and a longer divorce timeline for you and your family. 

Work with an experienced divorce attorney to set yourself up for a divorce scenario that fits your current and future plans. They can help you pursue productive processes from Day 1 to keep your divorce moving. They can also help you create a realistic Plan A, B, and C so that no matter what happens, you’re still well-positioned to achieve a fair and equitable divorce settlement.

If you believe your spouse may refuse to participate in the divorce process, contact our team of experienced divorce attorneys today.

Contact Our Morristown Attorneys Today

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.

To schedule a strategic planning session with one of our experienced team members regarding your particular case, please contact us online or through our Morristown, NJ office at (973) 354-4506.