Receiving divorce papers can leave you feeling lost and confused. Even if you’ve been expecting your marriage to end, actually getting the legal documents makes it real. It’s all too tempting to ignore them and hope everything goes away.
You don’t have much time to waste by ignoring things, though. There are important deadlines and requirements in the divorce papers that you need to meet, or you’ll be at a significant disadvantage during the legal proceedings. Keep reading to learn more about what you’ll find in this paperwork and seven things you need to do as soon as possible to make sure your split goes smoothly.
What Are Divorce Papers?
Divorce papers are the documents that one spouse gives to another to formally begin ending their marriage. There are two main forms that make up divorce papers:
- The Summons: This is a brief, formal notification that your spouse is “summoning” you to court for a divorce. It gives you the details of what you need to do next and when you’re expected to appear in court.
- The Petition for the Dissolution of Marriage: This is a more specific form that explains the grounds on which your spouse is filing for divorce, along with any requests for alimony, child custody, child support, or particular assets.
If you’ve been served, you should receive both forms in the same packet. Serving is a legal process itself. The moment you accept the paperwork, the process of legally ending your marriage has begun.
What You Need to Do After Being Served Divorce Papers
Once you’ve received these legal documents, the ball is in your court. You need to take action if you want your split to go smoothly. As the recipient of a divorce summons, you can follow these seven steps to make sure you receive a fair split in a reasonable time frame.
1. Read the Papers Thoroughly
Divorce papers are legal documents. You need to treat them as such and read them carefully to understand exactly what you need to do. On your first read-through, look for critical elements like:
- The specific summons
- Deadlines for your response
- Any particular considerations, such as a freeze on your accounts
Depending on where you live, the specific elements of the papers you’re served will differ. For example, California divorce papers contain ATROs, or automatic temporary restraining orders, which go into effect once you’ve been served. Other states don’t always have the same requirements. By reading the documents you’re served thoroughly, you’ll understand the basics of what you’re facing and be prepared to take the next step.
2. Hire an Experienced Divorce Lawyer
As soon as you’ve read the papers, it’s time to find appropriate legal representation. Unless you and your spouse have no property to divide, no children, and no desire to request alimony, a lawyer is essential for a fair divorce.
Your lawyer will help you in many ways, including:
- Explaining your rights and responsibilities during the divorce
- Helping you navigate the legal system and schedule court dates
- Building your case to keep property that matters to you
- Arguing on your behalf during asset division, child custody, and spousal support negotiations
- Speeding up the finalization of the divorce
Good lawyers can also help you respond to the original summons, so it’s wise to hire one as soon as you can.
3. Give Your Response
Once you receive the summons, it’s your responsibility to submit an “Answer” to the courts. This answer is your counter-petition, in which you respond to each of your partner’s requests and make your own requests known.
Typically, you’ll have a period of 30 days from the date you’re served to file your answer. The exact time frame will be listed in the documents you’ve received.
You need to submit your answer before the deadline, or you risk not being included in the following proceedings. If that happens, the court can grant your partner a default judgment that will usually give them everything they’ve requested. Your lawyer will make sure you turn in the answer on time and avoid that default judgment.
4. Collect Information
Once the immediate tasks of hiring a lawyer and submitting your response are complete, you’ll work with your attorney to collect information. You’ll give them access to documents such as:
- Financial records like pay stubs and tax returns
- Proof of asset ownership such as the deeds to homes and cars
- Account information for bank, investment, and retirement accounts
These records help clarify exactly what you and your spouse own together. It also gives your lawyer the information they need to argue on your behalf. Make sure you’re providing complete and accurate information so your lawyer can do their best work.
5. Protect Your Possessions
If your divorce summons permits it, now is the time to open a bank account in your name alone. You can’t transfer marital assets into this account, but you can have your paychecks rerouted into it.
Marital assets are any funds you or your spouse acquired while you were married. Sometimes the money you earned before your marriage is also considered marital property if it’s kept in the same account as the rest of your assets. All of those funds need to be included when dividing assets, so most states ban couples from transferring them to different accounts during their divorce.
However, it’s generally permissible to create new banks accounts and send newly earned funds to them. You’ll need a separate bank account sooner or later anyway. Creating one now lets you save money without blending it with your marital assets. Those funds will be critical as you transition into your new single life.
6. Change Your Mailing Address
If you and your spouse still live in the same place, it may be wise to have your lawyer and the courts send your mail to a post office box. Your mail may include critical strategy documents regarding negotiations in the divorce.
Even if you still trust your spouse, it’s smarter to be careful. You don’t want them to spot an opportunity to learn about your plans and counteract your claim on contentious assets. Protecting your mail by having it sent elsewhere will help keep your communication with your lawyer confidential. s
7. Choose Mediation, Arbitration, or Court for Your Divorce
The last step of preparing for your split is talking to your spouse about how you actually want to separate. You don’t necessarily need to go through the court system unless you and your partner have intractable disagreements.
Instead, you can choose to try mediation or arbitration. With these methods, you, your spouse, and your respective lawyers meet with an unbiased third party to negotiate your split. In mediation, the mediator offers suggestions and helps keep things civil but doesn’t make decisions for you. On the other hand, an arbitrator will help you and your spouse negotiate and will make a legally binding decision in cases where you disagree.
Whether you choose mediation, arbitration, or the courts, this is the final step. You can officially begin the process of ending your marriage without worrying that you’ve forgotten something important.
Don’t Waste Time After You’ve Been Served
Whether or not you’ve been expecting your marriage to end, it can be shocking to receive divorce papers. Still, you need to react quickly to ensure you don’t miss important deadlines. That’s why it’s so important to get in touch with an experienced divorce attorney as soon as possible. You can learn more about what you need to do after you’ve been served and kickstart the process of responding to the summons by scheduling your consultation with an experienced divorce attorney today.