A couple of years ago, I returned home from a work trip to a half-emptied house. The day before, I texted my husband letting him know our home security camera was offline, and he assured me that it was probably just an internet glitch. But I realized, when I walked through the door that night, that the real reason our security camera was offline was that he unplugged it so I couldn’t see that he was abandoning our marriage and taking half of our possessions with him. Suffice it to say, I was confused about why this was happening—until I checked my email and found a message from him. He wrote that he moved to Minnesota to start a new life with someone else and was filing for divorce. That day was the beginning of a long and frustrating process of getting divorced from an uncooperative partner.
My story, although painful, is not unique. As I later learned, it is common for one of the partners in an ending marriage to be resistant throughout the process of divorce. After all, divorce is typically stressful, expensive, and time-consuming. There were things I learned from my own experience that I hope will be helpful to anyone going through the process of divorce with an uncooperative partner.
Here are some of the common ways a partner can delay the divorce process—and advice from family law attorneys on how to handle it.
Your Partner Could Ignore the Process Server
I was fortunate in that my ex-husband went to the courthouse and filed for divorce himself. But usually, one spouse is served with divorce papers, and the process of divorce is initiated. If the served party is uncooperative, they will sometimes avoid the process server at all costs. For example, they may refuse to sign for them, pretend they’re not home, or move to an address where locating them may be difficult. If you’ve exhausted all options to get your spouse to accept the divorce papers, you can ask the court to do a last-resort service by publication, says Tami Kamin Meyer, a solo practitioner in Ohio who works with clients on domestic relations and personal bankruptcy cases. The notice of divorce is published in a newspaper and is a substitute for serving the papers to your spouse in person. The divorce process then continues.
Your Partner Could Interfere in the Process
When I reviewed the court documents for my divorce, I was surprised to see that my ex-husband provided false information regarding his address and hid several bank accounts from me. Both perjury and interference with discovery can cause a significant delay in the divorce process. According to Kamin Meyer, it’s better to leave this one up to your lawyer who can file for contempt of court against your spouse or push harder as needed. And don’t be afraid to switch lawyers if you feel yours isn’t going to bat for you.
Your Partner Could Make Undue Accusations Regarding Your Children
According to Michael Mosberg, a family lawyer with Aronson Mayefsky & Sloan in New York, the single biggest time delay in divorce cases is when children are involved, and the spouses can’t come to an agreement on custody. Or worse, one of the spouses levels serious accusations toward the other about their conduct with the children.
Mosberg advises that if you cannot amicably agree on a resolution about custody and access for your children, or if undue accusations are made, there’s going to be an appointment of an attorney or a guardian for the children as well as some form of a professional therapist to do a forensic evaluation.
Not only is that time-consuming, but it is also expensive. Mosberg suggests trying to find a dynamic that would make an uncooperative spouse more cooperative, whether that’s discussing custody in a meeting with lawyers, without lawyers, with a mediator, letting the lawyers handle everything, or something else. “It’s about assessing the spouse’s personality and then figuring out what dynamic is best to move the process forward.”
Your Partner Could Make Private Threats
When my ex-husband discovered that I hired a lawyer, he began to call and threaten to take my house, my car, and my dog. Nothing ever came of those threats, but it was concerning enough that I worked with my lawyer to relinquish his claim to my belongings. Kamin Meyer says there are a few options here: First, get every communication in writing. Don’t answer their calls and don’t speak to them in person. Do everything over text or email so there’s a written record of what they’re saying. You should also make a list and take photos of your property so if anything goes missing, you have a record of that as well. And if it comes to it, bring all your documentation to the court to show a track record of poor behavior on your spouse’s behalf.
Your Partner Could Skip Court Dates
When I arrived at the courthouse for our scheduled divorce hearing, I realized quickly that my ex-husband was going to be a no-show. After 10 minutes of waiting for him to arrive, the judge called to find out where he was. My ex-husband let us all know that he was not planning to come to court that day. His reason? It was simply because he didn’t feel like it. Although the judge wasn’t happy about my ex-husband’s decision, he did what typically happens in this situation. He gave my ex-husband a second chance.
“Oftentimes the court may give them a couple more chances,” Mosberg said. “But if the person just simply refuses to appear or respond, then you would seek a default judgment which gives you all the relief you’ve asked for. The party who refuses to participate has waived their right to assert anything to the contrary.”
This is a rare situation though, Mosberg concedes. Most people will take some sort of action once the divorce case heads to the court because they are afraid of potential consequences. In my situation, the judge allowed my ex-husband to call in to our new court date a month later and be present at the hearing over the phone, provided he signed and emailed the divorce papers ahead of time. My divorce was finalized at our second court date.
Seeing it Through to the End
Although it may seem like a struggle with an uncooperative partner will never end, all divorce proceedings do eventually conclude. “It is imperative to be patient,” Kamin Meyer said. “[Divorce] can take years depending on assets, anger, and financial resources. Or it can be quick if both parties are amenable and honest about their assets and intentions. But one party cannot prevent a divorce from happening. They can prolong it, but they can’t prevent it.”
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, best-selling author, and editor, generally covering some combination of food, travel, and history. She edits the Kitchen Witch Newsletter and co-hosts the Macabre Traveler podcast. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier. Check out her website at jenniferbillock.com and follow her on Twitter @jenniferbillock.
Editor's Note: This article was published in the 2021 Best Lawyers Family Law Issue. To read the full issue, you can find our digital edition right here.