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What happens if my husband refuses to sign divorce papers?

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A common concern for people who wish to apply for a divorce is that their spouse might block or hold up the process. The good news is that there is little your spouse can do in most cases to stop or significantly delay your divorce thanks to new divorce rules that came into force in England and Wales in April 2022.

In this blog, we discuss how the idea of your spouse needing to “sign divorce papers” is a myth, why it is no longer particularly important whether your spouse agrees with the divorce or not, how divorce proceedings actually work in England and Wales, and what you can do to keep things moving if your spouse refuses to engage with the process.

It should be noted that this blog is not intended as legal advice and is for educational purposes only. Should you wish to discuss your specific situation, our divorce and separation solicitors will be happy to answer any queries you may have.

For expert help with your divorce, please call one of our offices in Banbury, Bicester or Rugby, or simply fill out our enquiry form and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Does your spouse need to sign divorce papers to end your marriage?

People often talk about ‘divorce papers’ but there are actually two key pieces of paperwork that your spouse might be expected to sign in your divorce, depending on how your divorce plays out.

Under the new divorce rules introduced by the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, you can either apply for a divorce by yourself (a ‘sole application’) or you can apply together with your spouse (a ‘joint application’). What your spouse needs to sign will depend on which type of application you make.

If you make a joint application, both you and your spouse would need to sign the application. If you make a sole application, your spouse would be sent a copy by the court and they would be asked to sign an ‘acknowledgement of service’ form to confirm they have received the form and there is no legal reason the divorce cannot go ahead.

So, if your spouse refuses to make a joint application, you can make a sole application. If you make a sole application and your spouse refuses to sign the acknowledgement of service form, this can delay things a bit, but there are ways to ensure the divorce can still go ahead without their cooperation (covered in more detail below).

Can your spouse object to your divorce?

Under the old rules, your spouse would normally need to consent to the divorce, unless you have been separated for at least five years. If they objected, this could potentially mean a very long wait before your divorce could go ahead.

Fortunately, the new rules do not allow one spouse to object to a divorce started by the other except in very limited circumstances. The only cases where an objection is possible would be where the responding spouse believes the English and Welsh courts do not have the legal right to deal with the divorce e.g. if they have already started proceedings in another jurisdiction.

For the overwhelming majority of cases, therefore, your spouse will not be able to object to the divorce.

What happens if your spouse refuses to cooperate with your divorce?

A key part of the process for a sole application is sending a copy of the divorce application to the other spouse. This is what people mean when they talk about having to “serve divorce papers” or send a “divorce letter”.

Ideally, your spouse would sign and return the acknowledgement of service quickly, but what happens if they do not? What happens if they are “refusing to sign the divorce papers”?

Firstly, you can ask the court to have their bailiff serve a copy of the divorce application to your spouse. This would then act as confirmation that your spouse has been notified of the application, which is all that is legally required. In practice, the court would usually expect you to arrange service yourself through your solicitor, who would work with a ‘process server’ to deliver the application to your spouse and confirm that they have received it.

An alternative option is to ask the court for ‘deemed service’. If the court grants deemed service, it means they are accepting that your spouse has received a copy of the divorce application even though they have not returned the acknowledgement of service form.

To apply for deemed service, you would need to have evidence that your spouse has received the application e.g. in the form of text messages or emails from them.

Finally, if it is not possible to locate your spouse to serve a copy of the application on them, then you can request the court to ‘dispense with service’. This means the requirement to prove that your spouse has received a copy of the application would be waived, allowing your divorce to go ahead.

For a court to accept an application to dispense with service, you would need to be able to show that you have made all reasonable efforts to serve the divorce application on your spouse, so it is important to take specialist legal advice. But having this option there as a last resort should provide reassurance that, at worst, your spouse can only delay the divorce by refusing to “sign divorce papers”, rather than stopping it entirely.

And, if you are the one on the receiving end of a divorce application wondering “What happens if you don’t sign divorce papers?”, hopefully this makes it clear that this is unlikely to get you anywhere in the long run.

Get expert divorce advice in Banbury, Bicester and Rugby

For expert divorce advice for women, please get in touch with a member of our team. We can also assist with any other questions or concerns you may have in relation to divorce proceedings.

We have offices in Banbury, Bicester and Rugby working with clients across Coventry and Warwickshire, the West Midlands, Oxfordshire and nationwide.