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What Does 'Default' Mean in a Divorce?

The term “default” gets thrown around a lot in divorce cases, but what does it mean? There are actually two answers, depending on the context in which the term “default” is used.

When a party fails to respond to a divorce petition within the time proscribed by law, the party is “in default.” This can also happen if a party fails to show up for a court hearing.

The other kind of default is a “default judgment” — generally, the last step in finalizing an uncontested divorce. The process for obtaining a default judgment varies by state, but here are some general guidelines:

If a party does not respond to divorce papers, and there is no written agreement between the parties, the person seeking a default judgment to finalize a divorce — the petitioner — must still follow a series of steps.

First, the petitioner must submit a request for a default judgment in the divorce matter. This generally requires the petitioner to show she made every possible effort to notify the other party about the divorce.

If the petitioner is seeking child custody, child or spousal support, or a division of marital property or debt, then she must also submit paperwork describing her wishes. This will likely require the petitioner to disclose her income and assets, and perhaps try one final time to deliver these documents to the other party, even though the other party is not expected to respond.

In addition, your local court may require certain local forms to be submitted for a default judgment. Check with your court’s self-help center, or with an attorney, to make sure you’re not missing anything.

Once the paperwork is processed, and the waiting period (if any) is over, a judge may sign off on your default judgment automatically. Or, a court may require one final hearing before the process is complete.

Either way, if you’re “in default” or you want to pursue a “default judgment” for your divorce, it may be wise to consult an attorney. Divorce laws can be complicated, and any mistake along the way could force you to start all over again.

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