What Happens if a Divorce Respondent Doesn't Answer in Missouri?

By Beverly Bird

A spouse might refuse to acknowledge divorce papers for any number of reasons. He might hope that if he ignores them, they'll go away. He might mistakenly believe that if he doesn't respond, he can block the divorce. In Missouri, neither of these assumptions is true. If the respondent doesn't answer a petition for divorce, the divorce will happen anyway, sometimes with very unfavorable consequences to him.

Time to Respond

Under Missouri law, the respondent – the spouse on the receiving end of the petition for dissolution of marriage – has 30 days to act to protect his interests after he's served with the paperwork. At some point during this period, he must file an answer with the court if he wants to object to anything his spouse is asking for in the petition, such as custody, parenting time, support, debt division or property distribution. His answer serves as notice to the court that he wants to be actively involved in deciding these issues. If he doesn't file an answer, this tells the court he's in agreement with everything his spouse has asked for, and the court no longer has any legal obligation to include him or serve him with notice of any aspect of the divorce proceedings.

Requesting Default

After 30 days, the petitioning spouse has the right to proceed with an uncontested divorce if the respondent doesn't answer. She can file a "default and inquiry" request with the court and the court will schedule the matter for a final hearing. A copy of the request must be delivered to the responding spouse, just as the divorce petition was served on him. This is effectively his last opportunity to take action.

Default Hearing

At the default hearing, one of two things will occur. The respondent might appear and ask to be heard on the issues, even though he didn't file an answer. Missouri courts typically won't grant a default divorce if this happens. The judge might order a continuance of the proceedings, giving the respondent additional time to file his answer so the divorce can move forward along normal channels. If he doesn't appear, the court is likely to award the petitioner everything she asked for in her petition for dissolution. However, she's limited to requesting things she mentioned in that initial document. She typically can't appear at the hearing and suddenly ask for alimony because her spouse never responded and he can't defend himself against the request.

Respondent's Recourse

Missouri law allows a defaulting respondent one year to attempt to undo the damage that occurred when he didn't answer the divorce petition. He can file a motion with the court during that time, asking the judge to set aside the default and effectively start the divorce over again, this time with his participation. If he acts within a year, and if he has a compelling reason for having not answered the petition, the court may vacate the default. After a year's time, however, it's unlikely his motion would be successful.