Pennsylvania: My spouse won’t sign the papers–what do I do?

In Keystone State, balky spouse can drag feet for two years

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We get questions

Perhaps not surprisingly for a blog about divorce, we receive lots of questions, and one of the most common is worded something along these lines:

Question:

I live in Pennsylvania and have followed the law the best I know how, but now that my spouse has received all the paperwork my spouse won’t sign them. What can I do to force [him/her] to sign, so we can move on?

Answer:

In a word, nothing.

Except wait.

Background: no default judgment in Pennsylvania

Unfortunately, unlike many states, Pennsylvania does not allow default judgment to terminate a marriage, according to Rule 1920.41:  “No judgment may be entered by default or on the pleadings.” That’s not quite as cut-and-dried as it sounds. Perhaps better worded, it might read “solely on the pleadings.” Let’s look at some other states for background.

Many states provide for a relatively quick route to default judgment

In states that provide for default judgment, the rationale is that no spouse should be “held hostage,” that is, to be forced to stay in an irretrievably broken relationship. Therefore, if the respondent (or defendant, in states where the filer of the petition is called the plaintiff) ignores the service of notification, the petitioner can file a motion with the court seeking a default judgment.

If the petition is properly executed and the service was properly delivered, the court will likely award default judgment, meaning the petitioner gets everything requested in the paperwork. Basically, most judges figure that if respondents/defendants are too lazy, disinterested or disdainful of court notices, they deserve what they asked for, which is nothing.

Default judgments can be set aside–for good reason

So, in states that allow default judgment, the time period for response to the original notification is relatively short (20 to 30 days, typically). In lieu of response, the default judgment is almost a slam-dunk. True, the respondent/defendant typically has a right to file a motion requesting that the default judgment be set aside (vacated)–but again, the window closes pretty quickly, and the reason needs to be strong. For instance, the respondent may prevail if the notification was served on another person by the same name and therefore the proper person did not, in fact, receive proper notice. In that case, the entire process will have to be re-booted, starting over from square one. Notice, however, that the court is likely to to take a poor view of someone who’s simply had a change of heart and now wants to contest the divorce.

Defendant can’t ignore the case indefinitely

Given all the preceding, it may seem that your spouse can, in fact, keep you trapped within the marriage. However, that’s not true–getting the decree simply takes longer in Pennsylvania. Although it’s true that having no initial response from the defendant is deemed by the court as a denial of the complaint, the defendant can not ignore the case forever.  After being separated for two years (24 months), the tables turn.

In other words, if the plaintiff cites irretrievable breakdown as the ground for divorce, and the 24-month requirement is met, the plaintiff may submit an affidavit to that effect. At that point, no response from the defendant is deemed to be admitted by the defendant, unless specifically denied via counter-affidavit. In lieu of response, the plaintiff may give the defendant 20 day’s notice and then file “Notice of Intention to Request Entry of Divorce Decree.”

Final answer, with caveats

So, the bottom line in Pennsylvania is that a recalcitrant spouse can drag out the proceedings, but not forever. See Pennsylvania Code, 1920.41, 1920.42, 1920.72 and 1920.73.

Related questions include other states and missing spouses

Question: What if move to another state, where separation requirements are not so long?

Question: What if I can’t locate my spouse at all?

The short answer is, yes, you can move to another state–even one where residency requirements are as short as several weeks. Having met residency requirements and filing legal papers and providing proper service, the court can grant the divorce but may not have any jurisdiction over your spouse, such as orders for property division or child support. Furthermore, Pennsylvania does allow divorce to proceed when one spouse can not be located, but the procedure must be strictly followed, and courts advise retaining an attorney.

If you find yourself in any of these three situations, your best bet really is to retain a competent, well versed divorce attorney.

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