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Sometimes, spouses agree on the need to end their marriage, and beginning the divorce process is uneventful. But often, one spouse wants the divorce and the other doesn’t. A question we often hear is, “What happens if I refuse to sign the divorce papers?” The short answer is that you can’t stop your spouse from getting a divorce by refusing to participate.
When people talk about refusing divorce papers, they typically mean one of three things: refusing to be served with divorce papers, refusing to respond to them, or refusing to sign a settlement you have negotiated. Let’s talk about what can happen in each of those scenarios.
Many movies have made a joke out of a party’s refusal to accept service of process—that is, refusal to be served with a lawsuit. The person evading service is constantly looking over their shoulder, while the process server resorts to increasingly creative methods to get the papers in their hands.
In real life, service of process is rarely that funny. And while it may be difficult, process servers don’t have to resort to wild stunts (like pretending to deliver flowers) to get the job done. They can simply document their attempts to serve the divorce papers. If the respondent won’t accept service of the papers or can’t be located, the court will generally allow service by some alternate means. Alternate methods of service include publication of a notice in a legal newspaper, or service by certified mail.
Avoiding service may delay the progress of the divorce process for a few weeks, but eventually, the divorce will proceed—with or without your cooperation. Once service of process has been completed by whatever means, the clock begins ticking for you to respond. There is a Minnesota Rule that gives the court the authority to charge you with additional fees for avoiding service.
Once you’ve been served, you have 30 days to respond to the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. You may not agree with what your spouse has alleged or what they are asking the court to do. You can file an Answer and Counterpetition alleging different facts and asking the court to take different action (for example, to give custody of your children to you instead of your spouse).
What happens if you don’t respond? Once the thirty days have passed, and an additional 21 days, the court may enter a “default,” The court assumes that your failure to answer the Petition for Dissolution means that you don’t want to participate in the divorce process. Rather than let you derail the process, the courts will allow your spouse to move forward with the divorce without you.
What that means, in a nutshell, is that your spouse may get everything they ask for including custody of your children, child support, and even spousal maintenance. And because the default eliminates the need for negotiation, discovery, or a trial, the divorce you didn’t want might be granted even sooner.
Sometimes, especially when there are minor children of a marriage, a court might require a default hearing before granting the petitioner everything they asked for in their Petition for Dissolution. This is not always the case. You should not count on the opportunity for a hearing, especially if you have not shown any intention of participating in the divorce case.
Let’s say that you do agree to participate in the divorce while you have a chance, and you and your spouse even agree on terms to the divorce. Ordinarily, what would happen next is that you would sign a marital Termination agreement outlining those terms: who will receive what property; whether there will be spousal maintenance, how much, and for how long; child custody and support; and any other details of the divorce.
That agreement is a binding contract between you and your spouse; when the court accepts the agreement, it becomes part of your divorce decree. But what if, after reaching agreement, you simply…don’t sign the final stipulation?
It’s a little puzzling why someone would refuse to sign an agreement they had gone to the effort of negotiating, but it happens from time to time. It may be that you’re not quite ready to make your divorce final. But, as with the other scenarios, you cannot stop the divorce—only delay it for a little while. Your spouse can ask the court to set a hearing date, at which time the court may agree to finalize the divorce without your having signed the final marital Termination agreement.
The bottom line is that if your spouse wants a divorce in Minnesota, you can’t stop it from moving forward. Don’t refuse to sign divorce papers. A better move is to work with an experienced Minnesota divorce attorney who can explain your legal options and help you negotiate a favorable settlement so you can move forward with your life.
To learn more about your options regarding Minnesota divorce, or what to do if your spouse refuses to sign divorce papers, please contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation.