What Is a Default Divorce in Tennessee?
By Elizabeth Rayne, J.D.
If your spouse fails completely to respond to the divorce proceedings, Tennessee courts may award you a divorce by default. Because courts would rather give both spouses an opportunity to present their case, default divorce is only granted when the spouse fails to respond to the complaint, does not sign any settlement agreements, and despite your best attempts to notify your spouse, does not appear at any hearings.
Initiating a Divorce
In Tennessee, you may initiate a divorce by filing a complaint with either the Circuit or Chancery Court in the county where you live, depending on the local rules. In the complaint, you ask the court to dissolve your marriage and request terms concerning property division, alimony, child custody and support. You must serve the paperwork on your spouse with a summons, which lets your spouse know about the case and his obligation to respond to the documents. To properly serve the documents, have the paperwork delivered by an adult other than yourself, such as the Sheriff. Your spouse has 30 days to respond in writing to the claims in your complaint.
Default Judgment Overview
If your spouse does not file an answer to your complaint and does not appear in court, you may seek a default judgment in which the court will grant your divorce and typically award you what you requested in your complaint. The default process begins in Tennessee with completing a Motion for Default Judgment and an Order Granting Default Judgment and serving the motion on your spouse. You must write the date of service on both documents and file the motion with the court. You will receive a hearing date, during which you will bring the Order Granting Default Judgment for the judge to sign.
Notification and Hearing Date
In order to get a default judgment in Tennessee, you must demonstrate that you did your best to notify your spouse about the default proceedings. You may show proper notification that a default divorce proceeding is pending by serving your spouse in the same manner you served the complaint, but you are also permitted to personally deliver a copy of the motion or mail the documents. The local rules for the court in your county provide how much advance notice you must give your spouse before the hearing is scheduled. Generally, you must provide notice at least five to 10 days before the scheduled default hearing.
Final Decree by Default
If your spouse has not responded to the complaint and does not appear at the default hearing, the court may award a final divorce decree by default. It is up to the discretion of the court whether the default and the final decree are granted in the same hearing or in two separate hearings. At the final hearing, the court grants you only what you requested in the complaint, so if you forgot to ask for alimony in the complaint, the court will not grant alimony. You must appear at the final hearing and present a witness who can testify that you have grounds to ask for a divorce, such as irreconcilable differences.
Default Divorce Appeal
As with all final judgments in a divorce, your spouse has 30 days to file an appeal to the default judgment. He may ask the same court that awarded the default judgment to set aside the judgment. If your spouse can show that he did not receive proper notice of the divorce proceedings, the court may agree to set aside the judgment, which voids the default decree. The court will usually order a new hearing to determine the terms of the divorce.
Elizabeth Rayne earned her J.D. from Penn State University and has been practicing law since 2009, advising clients on issues ranging from employment law to nonprofit management. For two years, she served as a contributing editor for the "Vermont Environmental Monitor."