No one enters into a marriage believing it will end in divorce court, but unfortunately, life goes in unanticipated directions, and a significant number of marriages come to an end. Divorce is a difficult process, both emotionally and legally. Divorces are challenging even when couples agree to part ways amicably, but when one partner doesn’t want the marriage to end or refuses to sign the divorce papers as a means of punishment or control, the process becomes even more distressing.
Many people facing a particularly contentious or emotionally fraught divorce worry that their spouse won’t sign the divorce papers. What happens in California when one spouse refuses to sign?
Understanding Uncontested and Contested Divorce in California
A spouse may have many reasons to refuse to sign divorce papers. Some may believe that by refusing to sign they can stop the process. Others may wish to delay or make the process as difficult as possible in order to punish a spouse when they’re hurt or angry. Unfortunately, complicating the process in this way ultimately only punishes the person refusing to sign. By leaving the paperwork unsigned, the divorce automatically becomes a contested divorce. There are two types of divorces:
- An uncontested divorce occurs when the respondent (the person who didn’t file the divorce position) in a divorce agrees with the terms set forth by the petitioner (the spouse who filed for divorce) An uncontested divorce proceeds quickly and smoothly because the respondent waives the right to negotiate for different terms and may not need to appear before a judge at all.
- A contested divorce occurs when the respondent does not agree with the terms set forth in the divorce petition and has a set of demands they wish to negotiate for. For example, a spouse may wish to remain in the family home while the other wishes to sell the home and split the profits according to the state’s community property laws for equitable division.
Respondents in a divorce case have up to 30 days to sign divorce papers. By refusing to sign, the process becomes a default divorce. A skilled divorce lawyer in California can walk you through the process of a default divorce.
What is Divorce by Default?
Far from making the divorce process more difficult for a spouse, refusal to sign may make the divorce process take longer, but it also means the state considers that the respondent did not file a refusal motion to contest any specific points in the divorce agreement the petitioner put forth. In effect, the refusing spouse gives up their own right to negotiate any terms in the divorce, including child custody, child support, and the division of marital assets. The divorce then proceeds as though the respondent agrees with all terms, actually making it easier for the petitioner who won’t need to negotiate. If the terms are reasonable, a judge will typically sign off on the petition and the terms go into effect without the respondent having a voice in the process.
A divorce by default requires the petitioner to provide proof that their spouse was served papers and has refused to sign.
What if a Spouse Evades the Process Server?
This type of refusal becomes more challenging. A divorce attorney can help successfully navigate the system so the divorce proceeds even when an unwilling spouse evades the process server. There are several alternative options for serving divorce papers including through certified mail or published notice. A refusal to respond after alternate means of serving means the divorce becomes a default divorce and proceeds without the respondent having a say in the terms.
For couples without children, a default divorce may not even require a court appearance. For those with matters of custody and child support to decide, a judge will make a ruling in family court.
It’s helpful for both parties in a divorce to understand that refusing to sign papers or evading being served divorce papers will not halt a divorce in California.