Divorce is never an easy decision and the process is rarely without some degree of contention, but what if one spouse isn’t ready to sign the papers, either out of hope of reconciliation, fear of losing or sharing custody of children, or simply to make the process as difficult as possible for the other spouse? How long does a spouse have to sign divorce papers, and what happens if one spouse refuses to sign?
Whether you’re filing for divorce and worried that a spouse won’t agree to sign the papers, or you’re a reluctant spouse hoping for more time to work things out, you might be wondering how the process works when one spouse files the petition and then must wait for the other spouse to respond.
To begin the divorce process in Arizona and other states, one spouse must file a petition for divorce. The majority of states no longer require the spouse to file on any grounds other than irreconcilable differences or something with similar meaning. Once a spouse files the petition for divorce they become the “petitioner” while the other spouse becomes the “respondent.” In an uncontested divorce in which both parties have come to a mutual decision to part ways, one spouse files the petition and the other simply signs a voluntary appearance document acknowledging the divorce petition and indicating a willingness to appear in court for a final dissolution. However, in a contested divorce in which one spouse either doesn’t want the divorce at all or strongly disagrees with the divorce terms the other spouse desires—such as contention over child custody, property division, or spousal support—the responding spouse may decline to sign the voluntary appearance documents. In that case, the petitioner must have the papers legally served to the spouse, either through a member of the sheriff’s department or through a process server.
Most states allow a period of time between serving divorce papers and the legal responsibility to sign and return them. Many states stipulate that the papers must be signed within 30 days of service. In Arizona, respondents have 20 days to respond to divorce papers if the respondent lives within the state. If they live outside of Arizona, they have 30 days to respond. The purpose of this time allowance is to ensure the respondent has time to hire an attorney and make any other necessary arrangements, especially if the spouses were still sharing a residence at the time of the filing and one spouse must find a separate residence.
Many spouses facing a contentious divorce worry that they’ll be stuck in marital limbo if a contentious spouse refuses to sign the initial divorce petition, but the courts have answers to this type of contention. If the reluctant spouse eludes the process server, a petitioner can fulfill their obligation to notify the respondent by placing a public notice in a newspaper or on a courthouse bulletin board within their jurisdiction. While judges try to avoid one-party divorces and typically make multiple attempts to notify the respondent, the divorce becomes an uncontested divorce or divorce by default.
In an uncontested divorce, the judge will issue a ruling on all matters, including child custody and child support without input from the spouse who failed to respond.
If your spouse either hasn’t been served because a server can’t locate them, or the spouse refuses to sign the petition as a respondent, it’s important to discuss the matter with an experienced Chandler divorce attorney who can help to arrange an uncontested divorce decree so your divorce can proceed fairly with or without input from the other spouse.