Being served with divorce papers, particularly when the request for a divorce comes as a surprise, can be one of the most overwhelming experiences a man ever faces.
Filing for divorce is the first step in legally dissolving a marriage and whoever files first is at an advantage in many states. While it is normal to be confused and even frightened after being served with divorce papers, it is critical to act quickly and decisively to make sure you put yourself on the right track going into the divorce process.
Here is a primer on what to look for, and how to respond, when you are served with divorce papers by your spouse.
What are these papers?
When you are served divorce papers, you are served with a Summons and a Complaint.
A court summons is the paper that tells a defendant that he or she is being sued and asserts the power of the court to hear and determine the case. This form will explain your obligations, such as required court appearances, upon being served.
The complaint is the pleading that initiates a civil action. This document will state the legal foundation for the court having jurisdiction and venue over the case. It will also detail what your spouse is asking for in the divorce.
You might also be served with additional papers, such as an emergency order granting your wife temporary custody of your kids until a hearing can take place. You need to read over these very carefully.
If you are unsure what anything means, it is best to consult with an attorney.
What should I do after I’m served?
Your first step after being served court papers regarding any family law matter – whether it concerns divorce, establishing paternity, custody modification, etc. – is to accept the papers.
“Avoiding service isn’t going to do you any favors,” says Cordell & Cordell family law attorney Kimberly McCabe, “and depending on your state’s laws, if the papers are left at your home, then that can be considered service whether you choose to pick up the papers and open them or not.”
Once you are served with papers, the clock immediately starts and, in most states, you will typically have between 20 and 30 days to respond. If you fail to answer and counter-petition within that allotted time frame, an attorney can file a motion to answer out of time and ask the judge for permission to file an answer in the case.
Figure out your legal representation.
If you are confused at all as to what the papers mean or what your responsibilities are, you should consult with an attorney immediately.
“Even if you might not need an attorney to represent you as the case proceeds, you should always speak to an attorney to make sure you understand what your legal rights are, what your responsibilities are and they can give you advice for representing yourself as the matter continues should you choose not to hire an attorney,” McCabe said.
If you do decide to consult an attorney, you need to do so as soon as possible as your attorney may need some time to prepare your response.
As soon as you are clear as to why you are being served and what your upcoming responsibilities are, you need to start getting organized by gathering helpful information pertaining to your case.
Gather important financial information and make copies of important documents such as tax returns, credit card statements, bank statements, and retirement accounts that can be used to show what your assets and debts are. If children are involved, it is a good idea to also copy birth certificates, medical records, and insurance cards. This information can also be used when determining whether there is a need for spousal support.
If you expect custody to be contested, you should also pick up your children’s school and daycare records, daycare invoices and medical records. It is also wise to gather items that show your involvement in the children’s lives, since that is a factor all states consider when awarding custody and parenting time.
Although it is often overwhelming when you’re greeted with divorce papers at your doorstep, you don’t need to panic. You do, however, need to act quickly and decisively and come up with a clear strategy going into your divorce case.