Part of the legal process in a divorce involves serving or answering a divorce petition. In any divorce there will be one party who submits the initial divorce papers to the court first. This person is called the “petitioner.” Once the divorce petition has been filed, the party who submitted it will need to serve the other party, who is then responsible for submitting an answer to that petition. Generally, your divorce attorney will handle this aspect of your case. The court filings are a very important part of the process, and failure to comply with the specific rules that apply could result in your case being thrown out, or your soon-to-be ex-spouse getting their petition granted without your side of the story being heard.
Key Elements of a Divorce Petition
Divorce petitions will vary from state to state. At a minimum, you will need to let the court know:
Your reasons for getting a divorce
If you have children, how many you have and their names
When you got married and the place you were married
The date you separated
Serving the Divorce Petition
When the filing party submits their divorce petition to the court, they are responsible for serving a copy of the divorce petition on the other party. The petitioning party does not personally serve the papers, as the potential for conflict and/or misconduct could be substantial. Different states have different laws regarding serving legal papers, but generally legal documents are served either by a paid process server, an employee at the law firm, or another adult who is not a party to the proceedings. Oftentimes courts will also allow divorce petitions to be served by mail. Once the documents are served, the spouse who receives the papers will have a chance to respond. That is why they are called the “respondent.”
Answering the Divorce Papers
If You’ve Been Served
Keep track of deadlines! While it varies from state to state, you only have a set amount of time to respond to a divorce petition.
Once the divorce papers have been served in compliance with the notice and service requirements of the state, the person who is served is then tasked with filing an “answer.” An answer is essentially what it sounds like: a chance for the respondent to begin to explain their side of the story and ask for legal relief. It also acknowledges that the respondent has received the petition and is aware of the pending divorce action.
The paperwork that is served on the respondent will typically indicate the amount of time that the respondent has to file their answer. Typically, they will have at least 20 days to respond. States have different laws and requirements regarding what can and/or should be filed. In some states you may just need to file a piece of paper acknowledging receipt of the petition. However, filing an answer is an important step, and you will want to make sure that you use it to your full advantage. If you have been served with divorce papers, it is usually best to contact a knowledgeable divorce attorney as soon as possible.
It is important to make sure that you respond to any petition that is filed, or you may miss your chance to participate in the proceedings. When the respondent in a divorce proceeding fails to answer the petition, then they may be found to be in default. Even if you have missed the initial deadline, it is important to contact the court as soon as possible. The court has an interest in allowing both parties to be heard. However, if someone simply ignores the proceedings, the court will assume that they agree with the petitioner’s allegations and request for relief. Under those circumstances, they will usually grant the petition. If the respondent has a good and legally justifiable reason for defaulting, then the court may be willing to set the default judgment aside.