What Happens if I Ignore Divorce Summons Papers in New York?

by Beverly Bird
Your spouse can still divorce you even if you refuse to sign.

Your spouse can still divorce you even if you refuse to sign.

Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images

The ostrich-like tactic of burying your head in the sand never works in a divorce situation. Depending on the extent of your marital property and whether you have children, ignoring a divorce summons in New York can cause big problems you can’t easily undo. New York law makes it relatively simple for your spouse to go ahead and get a divorce without your cooperation.

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Service of the Summons

After your spouse files for divorce, she has four months to officially have the documents served on you. In New York, if you don’t agree to accept the papers and sign for them, this usually means a process server will deliver the papers to you personally. Your spouse’s papers will include the summons, telling you of your right to respond, and either a notice or a verified complaint. A notice is a condensed version of the complaint, telling you that your spouse has filed and what she’s asking a judge to award her, such as custody of your children, spousal support and all the marital property.

Your Right to Respond

After the process server gives you a copy of your spouse’s divorce documents, he will file his own paperwork with the court, confirming the date when he did so. You now have 20 days to respond. If your spouse filed in New York, but you don’t also live there, you have 30 days. If you received a notice, you can file a simple document called an appearance, letting the court know you want the opportunity to address the things your spouse has requested. If she filed a complaint, you should speak with a lawyer or other legal professional to draft a verified answer to the complaint, which specifies in detail the things you want the court to give you.

Default Judgment

If you ignore the summons, your spouse can ask the court to enter a default judgment against you 40 days after your time to answer has expired. If you don't act, your spouse will appear before a judge at the end of those 40 days, as soon as the court can schedule a default hearing. She can explain to the judge why she should receive everything she asked for, and because you haven’t participated, the judge will most likely grant her requests. The judge will sign a default divorce judgment. It becomes a final order, possibly denying you custody, visitation rights and your share of marital property, if these are the things your spouse requested.

Remedies After Default

If your spouse receives a default judgment, you have a very short period of time in which to try to have it set aside. You can file a motion with the court, asking the judge to vacate or undo the judgment. However, the longer you wait, the less likely it is that you will be successful. You’d have to convince the court that you had a very good reason for not responding to the summons, such as that you were out of the country or incapacitated. You would also have to prove why your spouse should not have received all the things she asked for. Even if you’re successful, your spouse has the right to appeal the judge’s decision to vacate the judgment, so it might become a drawn-out legal battle.