Solo Divorce: Can You Legally End Your Marriage Without Your Spouse?

Get the scoop on situations where you can get a default divorce, including key topics like "notice" and "service of process."

Can you actually get a divorce without your spouse? The answer is yes—depending on the circumstances. Though it can be challenging, it's doable when you know the steps you'll have to take. In the past, the law required both spouses to agree to divorce. But these days you can get a divorce even when you don't know where your spouse is. Let's take a look at how it works.

Trying to Serve Your Spouse

For your divorce to be processed, your spouse will have to be served with the papers. There are private companies that complete the service on your spouse, or your local sheriff's department might do it for a fee. But what if you don't have your spouse's address? There are always private investigators, but that can get expensive and might not work. Without an address, you're unlikely to be able to take any of the traditional service routes. Don't panic, though—there are other ways to move forward.

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Other Ways to Serve Divorce Papers

Before you can use an alternative method of serving your spouse, the judge will want to see that you've made reasonable efforts to locate them. This might include attempts to serve at their last known employer, at a family member's address if they're living there, or anywhere else your spouse might be found. Trying to get your spouse served more than once—perhaps three times—can give you a better chance of the court letting you move forward with your case.

The most common alternate form of service is through publication. Usually, this method involves placing an ad in the local newspaper closest to your spouse's last known address. You will have pay for it to run a certain length of time—at least three weeks in most cases—though you may be able to recoup costs from your spouse later in the divorce. Another, less common form of alternate service is by posting. This track means a notice will be posted in the courthouse closest to your spouse's last known address (with the posting done by you, the county clerk, or the sheriff).

If the court allows you to move forward with alternative service, make sure you understand the options and closely follow the procedure. The rules can be very specific.

After You've Served Your Spouse

Once you've completed the notice requirement, your spouse has some time to respond (usually 28 days), either agreeing or not with the statements in the divorce papers. But what happens if they never reply?

In that scenario, you can request a default divorce, which means you're asking the court to process your case without your spouse. Most of the time, the divorce will be granted. If you have minor children, the court will review the circumstances of your case before deciding custody and child support.

Default divorce is final and just as legally binding as any other kind. One thing to be aware of, though: Most states allow a defaulting spouse some time to try to overturn the judgement if they can provide a good reason for not responding to the divorce papers in time. In this case, you will have to start all over again.

If you manage to serve your spouse but they refuse to sign or respond, what happens next depends on your state laws. Most let you request default divorce. Others might assign you a court appearance and, if your spouse doesn't show, the judge will likely treat your divorce as uncontested (meaning the court will accept all the terms you requested).

Read here for the full lowdown on getting divorced without your spouse, including:

  • info on the initial "petition" or "complaint"
  • notifying your ex of a default divorce if you get one
  • what to do if they respond to being served, and
  • when to get a lawyer.