March 5

What to Do If Your Spouse Won’t Sign Divorce Papers

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coping with divorce, divorce blog, divorce process, divorce strategy, divorce tips


Few things are more frustrating than trying to divorce someone who doesn’t want to be divorced.  While you may be baffled by why your spouse is digging in his/her heels when your marriage is making both of you miserable, it happens all the time.  Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t help when you want to get divorced, but your spouse won’t sign divorce papers.

8 Reasons Why Your Spouse Won’t Sign Divorce Papers

Step number one in getting a divorce from a reluctant spouse is to try to understand why your spouse won’t sign divorce papers. There could be many reasons:

3 Monkeys stacked on top of each other signifying denial: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

1. Your spouse is in denial.

Denial is a natural stage in the grieving process. Everyone starts their divorce journey by struggling to believe their marriage is really over.

Most people, however, pass through that stage.

They progress through the various stages of grief until they finally learn to accept their divorce.

Some people, however, get stuck along the way. For them, denial is not just a stage. It is a way of life.

2. Your spouse believes that if s/he refuses to sign divorce papers, you can’t get divorced.

Many people mistakenly believe that both spouses have to agree in order for a couple to get divorced.

They don’t.

While it takes two people to make a marriage, it only takes one to get divorced.

If your spouse won’t sign divorce papers, s/he will make your divorce take longer, and cost more. But your spouse’s refusal to sign divorce papers ultimately will not stop you from getting divorced IF you are determined to do so.

3. Your spouse is holding out so that you will change your mind.

If your spouse does not believe that you truly and completely want a divorce, s/he may try to do everything possible to slow the divorce process down. By doing that your spouse is hoping that given more time, you will see the error of your ways and come back to your marriage.

(NOTE that it makes zero difference whether your spouse’s hopes are realistic.)

While your spouse tries to delay your divorce s/he may continue to try to get you to go to marriage counseling, couples’ retreats, and any other program that might possibly repair your marriage.

If you are truly serious about divorce, engaging in behavior designed to save your marriage is pointless. It’s also cruel. If you truly want a divorce, allowing your spouse to believe there’s hope for your marriage when there’s clearly no way to save it is mean.

Close up of eyeball with the word "Fear" on it: Fear of Divorce

4. Your spouse is afraid of change.

Most people hate change. They hate changes that they don’t want even more.

Unfortunately, divorce changes almost every area of your life. It turns your entire world upside down. It fills you with uncertainty and angst.

It’s not surprising then, that if your spouse doesn’t do well with change (or just likes to be in control!) s/he may be reluctant to dive headfirst into the whirlwind of divorce. That reluctance usually translates into an enormous amount of foot-dragging and stonewalling.

(It also explains why people get all the way to the end of their divorce, and then freak out and refuse to sign divorce papers at the last minute.)

5. Your spouse is getting a financial advantage by staying married.

Yes, it’s cynical to think that anyone would ever stay married for money. Yet it happens all the time.

Money is an enormous motivator. People have gotten married – and stayed married – for money for as long as marriage and money have existed.

If your spouse is financially dependent on you, s/he may not be willing to voluntarily jump off the gravy train and into the great unknown. That’s especially true if you have been supporting your spouse for years (or decades!)

The truth is that getting a job when you’ve been out of the workforce for a long time is scary. Taking responsibility for your own financial security can be terrifying. If that’s the reality your spouse is facing, it’s not all that surprising that your spouse won’t sign divorce papers.

6. Your spouse doesn’t believe in divorce.

If your spouse belongs to a religion that doesn’t believe in (or allow!) divorce, s/he may feel obligated to oppose your divorce for religious reasons.

Even if your spouse wasn’t particularly religious during your marriage, if s/he was raised with a strong religious background, that can affect his/her views about divorce.

The same may be true if your spouse’s family is religious.

Getting a divorce is difficult enough in and of itself. When getting a divorce also forces you to break ranks with your family or religious community, it’s twice as hard.

Man watching as he puts a gold coin on a scale to weigh it. Greedy spouse.

7. Your spouse is trying to leverage you into giving him or her more in the divorce.

If you want a divorce more than your spouse does, that gives your spouse negotiating leverage. If you want a divorce and your spouse doesn’t, that gives your spouse a LOT of negotiating leverage.

Armed with that leverage, your spouse is free to stall your divorce for a long time if s/he isn’t satisfied with the settlement offer you made. (Sorry!)

Alternatively, your spouse may “accept” your settlement offer, but then hold out for more at the last minute. When that happens, your only choices are to give in and give your spouse more money just to be done, or delay your divorce.

(NOTE: This strategy also works whenever you care more about something than your spouse. For example, if you don’t want to fight and your spouse doesn’t care if you fight, your spouse has negotiating leverage.)

8. Your spouse just wants to make you suffer.

Some people are just miserable humans. Other people are vindictive. If they feel like you’re hurting them, they’ll do whatever they can to hurt you back.

If your spouse is that kind of a person, s/he would have no problem refusing to sign divorce papers simply because that’s what you want him or her to do.

Unfortunately, if that’s the case, your divorce is probably going to be long and ugly. (Sorry!)

On the other hand, if that’s truly what your spouse is like, getting divorced is probably a very good decision!

Green road sign that says "Welcome to Acceptance, Enjoy the Journey"

Why Motivation Matters

Understanding your spouse’s reasons for not wanting to sign your divorce papers will help you figure out the best response to your spouse’s behavior.

For example, if your spouse is opposing your divorce for religious reasons, then waiting for your spouse to change his/her mind is not likely to work. You can be waiting until the second coming and your spouse STILL won’t sign your divorce papers.

The same thing is true if your spouse is refusing to sign your divorce papers just to make you miserable. If your spouse’s motivation is misery or revenge, then moving your divorce forward is going to require you to take action. Actually, you’re probably going to have to take more aggressive action than you might have preferred to take. (Sorry!)

On the other hand, if your spouse is in denial about your divorce because you just told him/her you wanted a divorce last week, taking aggressive action might be exactly the WRONG thing to do. Simply giving your spouse some time to move through the grieving process may be all that it takes to get your spouse to agree to move forward with your divorce.

The bottom line is that the kind of action you take depends on the reason your spouse won’t sign your divorce papers. It also depends on timing.

Timing Matters Too.

In order to figure out how to get your spouse to sign your divorce papers when s/he is refusing to do so, you also need to consider where you’re at in the divorce process.

If it’s early on and your spouse is in denial, then giving him/her time to work through the grieving process may be all it takes to solve your problem. Hopefully, in time, your spouse will understand that s/he can’t stop your divorce. Then s/he will sign the divorce papers voluntarily.

On the other hand, if you started your divorce months, or years, ago, and your spouse still won’t sign anything, then giving him/her more time is not likely to accomplish anything. It will only delay your divorce even more.

If you’re near the end of your divorce and your spouse won’t sign the papers, then your spouse is probably holding out for more money or better settlement terms. In that case, you have to decide whether or not to cave in and settle, or hold out and go to trial.

Frustrated woman screaming and pulling her hair because her spouse won't sign divorce papers

Getting the Right Help in Your Divorce Can Make a Difference

If your spouse thinks that s/he can prevent a divorce simply by not signing the divorce papers, then s/he needs a bit of an education. Getting a letter from your lawyer explaining that you can divorce your spouse even if s/he doesn’t sign anything may be enough to turn your spouse around.

Having a good divorce lawyer by your side will also be incredibly important if you’re dealing with a vindictive spouse or a spouse who is out to get every last cent in your divorce. Also, having a good divorce lawyer will be critical if you have to go to trial. (Trying your own divorce case without a lawyer can cause you problems you can’t even dream of right now! It is definitely NOT something you want to do!)

Sometimes, though, you need more than just a lawyer. You need a therapist. (Or, rather, your spouse needs a therapist!)

If your spouse is resisting divorce because s/he thinks that you will change your mind, a therapist or a discernment counselor may be able to help. A therapist can help your spouse understand the reality of what’s happening. A therapist can also help your spouse deal with his/her fear of change if that’s what is holding him/her back.

Close up of a judge on the bench, with a giant gold wall plaque of the scales of justice behind him.

What to Do When Nothing Works: Getting a Judgment by Default 

No matter what your spouse’s motivation for not signing your divorce papers may be, if s/he continues to refuse to sign anything no matter what you do, the only way you can get divorced is to go to trial. 

If your spouse has refused to participate in your divorce at all, then your “trial” may just be a hearing for a default judgment.

Default judgments are not necessarily hard to get. But they often take time.

You’ll have to serve your spouse with a summons. Then you’ll have to wait until s/he fails to file an appearance in court in the time allotted for him/her to do so.

After that, you will need to go to court (probably several times!) in order to take the steps you need to finalize your divorce.

While doing all of that may not be terribly complicated, it is time-consuming. It also requires a level of technical expertise that a divorce lawyer will have … but you won’t.

Because of that, when you’re dealing with a spouse who just WON’T participate in your divorce, it’s best to hire a divorce lawyer to help you through the process.

On the other hand, if your spouse has participated in your divorce, but just won’t sign the final paperwork, then your only option is to go to a full-blown trial. (Sorry!)

Dealing With a Reluctant Spouse

Getting a divorce when your spouse is determined to stop you can be frustrating! It can also be expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining. 

But it’s also very “do-able.”

The key is to understand what’s holding everything up. Then get the right help and take the right action.

If you persevere, one way or another, you will get divorced. You will be able to move on to a new life.

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This post was originally published on November 9, 2016, and updated on March 5, 2020.

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  • What if I have no idea where my husband is? He left almost 3 years ago and I have no forwarding address or his current employers info, to get him served….He may have even been deported since he is an undocumented immigrant…

    • The best thing you can do is get a divorce lawyer. The lawyer may be able to serve your husband by publication. That takes a bit longer, but you can still get divorced. (You can also do this yourself, too, but it’s a little bit complicated. You’ve got to know the ins and outs of how it works in order to know what you can do, and how you can do it. If you mess up the publication process you will end up paying more court fees and having your divorce take even longer.)

      Best.

      Karen

    • I live in Arkansas..I was married maybe six or seven months and I am trying to get a divorce from my wife but she won’t sign the papers what can I do…I want to marry someone else..

      • I hate to say it, but you could really use a good divorce attorney. You’re going to need to get a divorce by default. While you can do this yourself, you have to comply completely with your local court rules. Because of that, it’s easier to get a lawyer to do it for you. If you want to do it yourself, I still recommend consulting with a lawyer. Even if you have to pay for an hour of his/her time, s/he can walk you through exactly what you need to do to get this right.

        Best,

        Karen

    • I’m not sure I fully understand your question.

      What will happen if you don’t sign papers depends upon the facts and circumstances of your case, as well as the law in the state you live in. To get a full answer to your question, you need to consult with a local Texas lawyer about your case.

      In general, though, if you refuse to sign divorce papers, that means that a judge will ultimately decide your case. If you refuse to participate in your divorce at all, your spouse will get a divorce without you. One way or another, you will end up divorced.

      Karen

      • Hello,
        What if the divorce papers have been signed but just need to be corrected. There is a typo in his ssn and I advised him 2 years ago to fix it at the law library but always makes excuses for not getting it done like lack of time or “busy with more important things”. Our divorces has been pending for 3 years. We were married in New York but I now reside in Florida. I’m happily enganged and ready to remarry. I don’t know what to say or do anymore. Any advise would be appreciated. Thank You.

        • I’m afraid the only thing I can tell you is to talk to a lawyer in the state where you were divorced. You need to know if that typo matters or not. Only a lawyer in the state where you were divorced can answer that question.

    • I’m not sure I fully understand your question.

      What will happen if you don’t sign papers depends upon the facts and circumstances of your case, as well as the law in the state you live in. To get a full answer to your question, you need to consult with a local Texas lawyer about your case.

      In general, though, if you refuse to sign divorce papers, that means that a judge will ultimately decide your case. If you refuse to participate in your divorce at all, your spouse will get a divorce without you. One way or another, you will end up divorced.

      Karen

    • My daughter filed for no fault divorce in pa 6 months ago. Her husband refuses to sign the final papers now just to make her miserable. What to do?

      • She needs to get a good PA Divorce lawyer. S/he can take the appropriate legal steps to get your daughter a divorce judgment either by default or by going to trial. It’s unfortunate that it would have to come to that. But at least that way your daughter will get divorced.

        Karen

  • He beat me after 17 days of marriage. I had him arrested and found he had not complied with an earlier probation instruction. I hastily married this “man” shortly after my husband of 15 years passed away. Anyhow, this guy 21st taken to jail and served a year. I left him shortly after his incarceration. I have since left that state and have no idea where he is. He was homeless last time I heard. He has anger issues and substance abuse problems. He swore he would never sign divorce papers. I believe he lives in hopes that I will one day support him. I am terrified of him

    • I can only imagine the terror you are in. I urge you to get some help from your local domestic violence organizations and an experienced divorce lawyer. Your husband doesn’t necessarily have to sign divorce papers in order for you to get divorced. But, when you are under the threat of physical abuse from someone with anger issues, you have to take your safety seriously.

      Staying married has consequences. In your case, getting divorced can have serious (and dangerous) consequences, too. Your best bet is to get advice from a very good family lawyer who has experience in handling domestic abuse cases. Do not go to the cheapest lawyer, or someone who is not used to handling domestic violence cases.

      A good, and experienced, divorce lawyer will at least be able to advise you on your options. You need to know if and how you can get divorced without putting yourself in jeopardy.

      You may have to wait for awhile (I don’t know). You may have to carefully plan your divorce. But, you should be able to ultimately get a divorce, if that’s what you want to do.

      Good luck to you.

      Karen

      • Ok my friend trying to divorce in mississippi his wife won’t sign Pappers to get it filed.? Can he do anything. He’s paying her bills for now..

  • I have Paid for papers through an attorney. They served him all he has to do is sign in presence of a notary and send them back. He’s had them for over a month now and will not sign or send them back. I’ve been trying to divorce him for 3 years now. We’ve been separated over 2 years how can I proceed without his signatures. To get this done fast.

    • You can get divorced without your spouse’s signatures but, unfortunately, it’s probably not going to be fast. (Sorry!) Talk to your attorney about your options. The key is to start taking the steps you need to take to get divorced without your spouse’s signature as soon as possible.

      Meanwhile, try talking to your husband. Maybe you can find out what’s holding him back, or make a deal with him.

      It may be a waste of time. Or it may move things forward. Either way, why not try?

      Karen

  • Hi,
    My husband and I haven’t been living in the same house since 2015. We have a 6 year old daughter that he currently hasn’t done anything for such as, support, calling anything. He actually walked out and abandoned us when we discussed a divorce and left my daughter and I homeless, after 6 months I found a place for us to live and settled into a schedule. Recently he flew here for her birthday and she cried because she didn’t know who he was.i informed him she hasn’t been around him or seen him since she was 3 years old. I printed up divorce papers but refuses to sign because he says he wants her to come live with him. ( Not happening). He’s had made threats previously saying how would I feel if I never got her back from a visit or took her from school. So I had to put protocols on my daughter when it came to her school and who can pick her up and such. He currently lives in Georgia. But, we live in Seattle. I honestly want a divorce and for him to have supervised visits only. I don’t want to keep her from her father but, I’m also not willing to put her in harms way! What can I do? I really don’t have much leave way for an expensive attorney but, I’m willing to take a loan out just so my daughter and I can move forward with our lives. Anything helps! Thank you!

    • Okay, lets start here. You need a lawyer. You really need a lawyer.

      You don’t necessarily have to hire the most expensive lawyer in town. But with your husband’s veiled threats about kidnapping your daughter, and the fact that he feels he can just “pop in” to her life whenever he wants, you absolutely need legal advice.

      Another thing you would be wise to do is to learn as much as you can about divorce before you start anything. Get consultations from at least two, maybe three, attorneys. (Yes, I know that will cost you. But, before you hire someone you need to feel comfortable with him/her. Also, not every lawyer will tell you the same thing. You need to know ALL of your options.)

      After you learn as much as you can about divorce, and the divorce law that will affect your case, you need to get prepared. Do as much as you can to get ready for your divorce in advance. Do as much as you can to get your daughter on solid emotional ground and prepared for your divorce in advance, too.

      That’s not to say there won’t be surprises. There are always surprises in divorce. But the more knowledgeable and prepared you are, the better your outcome is likely to be.

      Finally, document everything. It sounds like you may end up fighting with your husband in court. If you do, you will need evidence to prove whatever you say. Otherwise, you’ll get lost in a “he said, she said,” battle where no one can prove anything.

      I wish you the best.

      Karen

  • Can my husband refuse to sign the divorce papers at the trial and if he does how long will this take to get 5e divorce to go through

    • Yes, your husband can refuse to sign whatever he doesn’t want to sign. How long it will take to get divorced after that depends on what stage of the divorce process you are in, and how backed up the courts in your area are. I suggest you talk to your attorney about how long it will take you to go all the way through trial if your husband won’t agree to voluntarily sign papers.

      Karen

  • Hello Karen, where do I need to start to get a divorce without my spouses signatures? I’ve asked over 40 times politely to sign the paperwork over the course of 5 months and I just continue getting the same answer, “I’ll get to them.” I’m so tired of asking and I just need to know where to begin to get the divorce done alone. We live in tennessee and been legally separated for a long time. Thank you.

    • If your spouse won’t sign divorce papers voluntarily, the only way to get divorced is through the court system. Like it or not, your spouse can’t ignore a judge. If your spouse doesn’t answer court papers, there are consequences. If your spouse doesn’t answer you, unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about that.

      I suggest you talk to an attorney in your area to see what your next steps are in court. (sorry!)

      Karen

  • My wife received paper in the mail nofault divorce. Originally said she would sign them. Now she won’t we have been separated for over a year. Children are grown no property to divide

      • I have a friend who has been separated from his wife for in almost two years. He lives in Florida. His wife is a drug user and an alcoholic. His lawyer has told him he feels she is incompetent to sign the divorce papers. I asked him if he could ask about a Guardian ad Litem and he says that came up but says he ” doesn’t want her to have one because the Guardian would tell the judge she is incompetent and that there isn’t a court in Florida that would grant a divorce then. He says “he would be stuck being married God knows how long”? He says “How do you divorce someone who doesn’t know they are getting a divorce”? I don’t have any answers for him!

        • Yikes! That’s a hard one.

          First of all, I would defer to the Florida lawyers. I am an Illinois divorce lawyer, so I can’t give you legal advice about Florida’s laws.

          If the Florida lawyers say that you can’t divorce someone in Florida who is incompetent (which makes sense) then the only question is whether or not your friend’s wife is legally incompetent or not. Again, a Florida lawyer should be able to tell you how a local judge might make that decision.

          As a practical matter, this woman’s mental state will clearly make a big difference. (Since I don’t know what that state is, I can’t comment on whether she could, or couldn’t be competent.) Someone who is an addict might be totally competent when they’re not using, or if they get sober. On the other hand, if your friend’s wife has done so many drugs that her mind is really blown, then she may very well be incompetent. I don’t know.

          The best thing your friend can do in this situation would probably be to get a second opinion (and maybe a third) from different lawyers. He might want to have a focused discussion on what makes someone “incompetent” under Florida law, and what, if any, options he has if she is truly incompetent.

          If all the lawyers say his wife is incompetent, he may end up having to stay married.

          Sorry! I wish I had something more positive to say!

          Karen

  • I have gave wife divorce papers 3 times she ripped them up. So in March I got them certified to her she sign she got the papers. I been asking her for months to sign she won’t. Been separated for 2 years. Now the 60 days as past I live in Oklahoma and I don’t know what to do next because she isn’t going to sign we have no kids nothing together and I’m in the military. I NEED HELP ASAP

    • You don’t need your spouse to sign the papers to get a divorce. BUT you do need a lawyer to help you understand the court rules and work your way through the system properly. (That’s especially true if you’re in the military and you can’t make it to court appearances on your own.) Your divorce may take longer if your wife doesn’t co-operate. But it can be done.

  • My wife wants to divorce me. We are in the military and I am her dependent; she walked in one day and told me I had three months to leave. I stupidly found a job and moved because I did not want my daughter to go through the stress of seeing us live as total strangers.
    I have been away from her for over a year now during that time she has tried to make me sign two different papers. The first was a terms of separation paper where she gets all her military retirement (I refused to sign) and the second was months later which was a document saying I relinquish my right to contest which I refused to sign, as well.
    I have not been officially served with papers can she get divorced and take all her military retirement? How can I protect myself from her taking all our retirement. I have been faithful and I have been there over 20 years taking care of our child and her needs during deployment and her mobilizations I even gave her half my pay during the times were together. It’s not fair.

    • I hate to say it, but nothing about divorce is fair! (Sorry!)

      Given your circumstances, you really need to talk to a good divorce lawyer in your area. Ideally, you need to talk to a lawyer who is well versed in military divorce because dealing with military benefits is very different from dealing with civilian benefits. I can’t give you legal advice online, or outside the state of Illinois. You really need to consult with a good divorce lawyer to find out what your options are for sharing in her military retirement.

      Finally, in the meantime, don’t sign anything without first running it by your lawyer!

      Karen

  • Hello me and my spouse had been together for about 24yrs and there was a lot of cheating going on on her side. we have been separated for about 8 years now and have not gotten back together and I am not planning on that happening. I filed for divorce and had a paralegal write up the divorce decree and paperwork my spouse is saying she want sigh unless they put that she is initialed to my social security benefits and my 401k retirement account. I told her that it doesn’t have to be in the devoice decree because after 10years of marriage she is all ready initialed to that and for me to have them put that in there it’s another document that would have to be filed and that would cost me $450.00 and I don’t have the money for that I am unsure how to proceed with this can you please help..

  • I have been separated from my spouse for 3.5 years with no desire to reconcile, filed for divorce, had to wait the 90days, spouse signed the first round of paperwork, however refuse to sign the final round. Thus, I am not able to obtain the divorce. I am told that I cannot be granted the divorce because he needs to sign the last round of the paper work. He (spouse) states I’ll sign the papers, I proceed to go through having the paperwork sent to him (thrice already) he doesn’t sign. He stated the he signed only to find out he did not. He has moved on with his life over five years ago. What can I do?? I have already paid out so much money in PA. I am devastated.

    • You CAN get a divorce even if your spouse won’t sign the paperwork, but it will probably take a good divorce lawyer in PA to help you do that. I can’t give you the exact details on how to do that since I’m not licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania. But I strongly recommend you hire a good PA divorce lawyer sooner rather than later so that you can get this done and put it behind you.

      Karen

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