Last August, US Weekly and several other entertainment news outlets reported that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had hit the pause button on their divorce. The couple was “taking a breather and seeing what happens.” Later reports claimed both wanted to allow some time and space for Pitt to continue therapy for alcohol addiction. While this might come as a surprise to some, it’s actually not uncommon for some couples to step away from these proceedings whenever a change in circumstances causes them to reassess their situation.
While they’re far from alone, substance and alcohol abuse are common reasons for spouses to file for divorce. When that happens, it can serve as a “wake-up call” for the spouse struggling with addiction. If that spouse is willing and does pursue rehabilitation and sobriety, it can mark a dramatic change in the relationship, sometimes dramatic enough for both spouses to ask their respective attorneys to put work on their divorce case on hold so they can focus on treatment and recovery and participate in marital therapy or counseling.
Of course, it’s preferable for couples to pursue therapy together before filing for a divorce. Although that’s not always the way things work out. The reasons for a delay in counseling vary from couple to couple. For instance, one spouse might have a strong objection to the involvement of a mental health professional in the marriage. Those sentiments might change once one spouse hears the other entertain thoughts of divorce. Actually filing can serve as a wake-up call, but sometimes just saying the word is more than enough to convince a spouse to seek professional help in an effort to try and get the marriage back on track.
Other couples may be persuaded to hit the pause button for more practical reasons. A recent report in Time Money was filled with quotes from couples who had postponed their divorces because of the uncertainty surrounding healthcare in Washington, D.C. Some of these people have pre-existing conditions. Others aren’t employed and worry there won’t be an individual market for them to find coverage on once their divorce is finalized. In each case, their concerns about their medical well-being trumped those about their relationship with their spouse. This is just one example of a number of financial reasons that can cause a couple to seek to put their divorce on hold.
Whatever the reason, a party should be aware that, in Texas, there is no formal, legal means by which to “pause” a divorce proceeding. In many counties, divorce cases (and other family law matters) are placed on a “dismissal docket” within a few months of the case being filed. The court sets a dismissal hearing in the case and, in order for it to remain open, the parties must show the court that they’re making some forward progress. If not, the case may be dismissed. In other words, in Texas, especially in larger counties, a court is not likely to allow parties to press the pause button indefinitely.
In the event a couple wants to put things on hold for a period longer than that which the court allows, the party who filed for divorce has the option to voluntarily dismiss the case by filing a Notice of Nonsuit. The parties retain the right to refile the case at a later date, however, a new filing fee would be required, service of citation would again be necessary, and the case would essentially start over from the beginning.
In many cases, pressing pause on a divorce can make a lot of sense. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this can have negative effects on you and your spouse, as well as those around you. Pressing the pause button for too long can even hurt your chances at an amicable split.
A spouse may be reasonably sure their marriage is at its end, yet still feel an obligation to try and save it. They’ll press the pause button and take some of the steps we’ve discussed. It may quickly become apparent that the marriage can’t be saved, however, and the resulting frustration can exacerbate their problems, even to the point that parting on good terms is no longer important to them. This isn’t the only problem to consider. One of the biggest concerns in postponing a divorce is the cost. You and your spouse aren’t the ones filing paperwork and scheduling court hearings; your lawyers are. This can be another source of frustration and stress, especially if it seems that both spouses are only spinning their wheels and the relationship isn’t getting any better. These concerns can often grow, affecting children, family and friends. Each couple is different, and at the end of the day each couple needs to ask themselves if pressing pause on their divorce is right for them.
After all, despite the stories about Brad and Angelina postponing their divorce to see how things played out, others have said that the couple’s plans haven’t changed. This doesn’t mean couples should be quick to throw in the towel. On the contrary, relationships can be worth saving, and couples owe it to themselves to find out if theirs is. But in the end, couples should also be honest with themselves about what they discover.
Holly Rampy is an attorney in the Dallas office of Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson. She has been practicing family law since 2010. She’s a member of the family law sections of both the state bar of Texas and the Dallas Bar Association.