What Happens If You Just Ignore a Divorce Complaint?
Posted by Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC on May 20, 2019
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Just because some philosopher said it – doesn’t make it true. Ignorance is not necessarily bliss. And, burying your head in the sand, doesn’t mean your troubles will go away. More than likely, you won’t enjoy the outcome if you decide just to ignore a divorce complaint filed against you.
Meanwhile, there’s one more consideration when it comes to our list of idioms. “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.” The bottom line is that your failure to respond to a divorce complaint could result in a default judgment in favor of your former spouse.
If you’re a procrastinator and figure you’ll deal with the end of your marriage on another day, don’t wait too long. Seek the advice of an attorney with experience in family law. Like other jurisdictions, Tennessee law contains prescribed deadlines when it comes to answering complaints. Otherwise, you could find yourself in the position of the husband in a recently decided high-asset divorce case.
Husband Ignored Divorce Complaint
The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville decided Pack v. Pack on April 30, 2019. According to the case history, Sandi Lynn Pack and James Wade Pack were married for 23 years when Sandi decided to file for divorce in 2017.
When the couple first married, James owned three businesses. Subsequently, Sandi decided to go to law school. Ultimately, she became the sole wage earner. Notably, Sandi and James have two children, one of whom was a minor when the marriage dissolution began.
Sandi filed the divorce complaint on June 26, 2017, and alleged that her husband was guilty of inappropriate marital conduct. According to the complaint, James used marital funds to trade in the stock market. He did so without her knowledge and consent and lost large sums of money.
The divorce papers stated Sandi’s request that the court appoint her as the residential parent of the minor child. She also asked that the court grant her husband “reasonable parenting time.”
It appears undisputed that James received the divorce complaint. However, he didn’t retain counsel or file an answer. It seems that James thought he and his wife could reconcile their differences.
On July 25, 2017, Sandi sent a follow-up email to James. She offered to give James a two-week extension to answer the complaint. James continued with the hope that Sandi would agree to a reconciliation.
Wife Filed for Default Motion
Forty-five days after service of the divorce complaint, Sandi filed a motion with the court requesting a default judgment. James later admitted that he never even opened the mail containing the court documents.
The court heard Sandi’s motion on September 8, 2017. Since James never read the paperwork, he had no idea he had the opportunity to go to court. Therefore, he made no appearance at the court hearing. Subsequently, the judge granted Sandi’s motion for default judgment.
Once again, Sandi proceeded to follow the rules of court and served James with the order granting the default judgment. For whatever reason, he looked at the paperwork and retained an attorney. On September 28, 2017, his lawyer filed a motion requesting that the court set aside the default judgment.
Husband’s Explanation for Ignoring Divorce Complaint
Truth be told, it isn’t impossible to set aside a default judgment with good cause. Among other things, James contended he was depressed and “not legally sophisticated.” Furthermore, James really thought that he could reconcile with Sandi and put their differences aside.
James admitted that he made a mistake by not opening the mail and worried that a default judgment would deprive him of things relative to the couple’s long-term marriage.
Before submitting the motion to set aside the default judgment, James also filed an answer to Sandi’s divorce complaint. He denied the allegations and requested equal parenting time and spousal support.
Upon consideration, the trial judge ruled against James. The court found that his failure to respond to the pleading was willful. However, the court also decided to set a hearing regarding what it considered the remaining issues of child support and division of marital assets.
At the final hearing, the parties agreed to Sandi’s proposed parenting plan. The court ordered her to pay James $278 per month for child support.
In the meantime, it turns out that the marital estate was of no small consequence at nearly $1.5M. This figure did not include Sandi’s pension plan. Ultimately, the court awarded 60% of the marital estate to Sandi and the balance to James.
In making the ruling, the court cited TN Code § 36-4-121, which says that attention must be given to “[t]he contribution of each party to the acquisition, preservation, appreciation, depreciation or dissipation” of assets.
James appealed the outcome of the case, starting with the trial court’s decision to enter a partial default judgment. The Court of Appeals found that James knew he needed to answer the divorce complaint within 30 days and neglected to do so. All things considered, this added to the finding of willingness necessary to obtain a default judgment.
The court also reviewed the financials presented by both parties as far as the division of the marital estate. This included the issues related to losses incurred as a result of James’ stock trading.
In the end, the Court of Appeals considered the method used to determine equitable distribution and affirmed the lower court’s decision.