What to Do If You've Been Served Divorce Papers

Divorce is one of the most stressful events a person can go through. It represents a major alteration, full of emotional upheaval and fear of unknown consequences, and potential unwanted changes. If the divorce comes as a surprise, it can be even more traumatic.  In either case, being served divorce papers is an experience most people would rather avoid, and few know how to respond to.

First Responses and Cautions

Here are some suggestions about how you can first respond after having divorce papers served on you.

  1. Look the papers over carefully and make sure that they are actually divorce papers and not a summons of some other sort.
  2. Having established what they are, fight the urge to panic.  You'll going to need a cool head to the make the decisions that will have to be made.
  3. Take the first few minutes to read the papers over.  When you get done, read through them again.  This will be challenging because there will be items in the papers which will upset you.
  4. If your spouse asks for everything, don't panic.  First of all, he/she isn't going to get everything.  It's standard practice to ask for everything, because if it isn't mentioned in the petition it can't be requested later on.  So, don't fear you're losing everything.
  5. If the petition says you'll have to pay for your spouse's attorney fees, don't panic. This is also standard practice and doesn't mean that it will happen.
  6. Do not call your spouse all upset and yell at him/her.  Your best course of action is to make no contact with your spouse at all.  You don't want any emotionally based things you say to come back to haunt you later if your case should go to trial.
  7. If children are involved, do you best not to draw them into the conflict. This is the best course of action in order to strengthen your case when it goes to court.
  8. You will have 20 days in which to form your answer to the petition.  Don't do it the first day, but also don't put it off either.
  9. Take some time off.  You'll need it emotionally. You can use the time to think it through and start some planning.
  10. You'll need friends and family at this time.  Talk things over with them.

Important First Steps and Actions

After you have adjusted to the idea that divorce is imminent you will need to take some important steps and make some serious decisions regarding how to continue.

  1. First, make the decision to either represent yourself or employ the services of an attorney
  2. Should you decide to hire an attorney call around, do some research; find someone who handles divorce cases and has a good record.  If possible find someone who is recommended to you by a trusted confident.
  3. Whether you decide to do it yourself, or hire an attorney take time to become well informed on the subject of divorce. Study the law and talk to professionals.  Learn as much as you can to protect your rights, and to also know what to expect.
  4. Start making a list of all your assets and their values.  Move money from joint accounts into personal.  Try to secure as much as you can.  Caution: Do not try to deny your spouse of necessary money for living expenses.  Anything negative like this will backfire on you later in court.
  5. Remove your spouse's name from credit cards, or better yet cancel credit cards.  Any charges made from this point forward will only add to your joint debt.  You want to minimize as much of this as possible.
  6. At this point stay on the move.  The quicker you do things the more it will play into your favor.  Go through everything you can think of and make necessary arrangements.
  7. You will want to start saving money.  You will need it. 
  8. Collect all records of all finances for the last year, or longer.  Gather information about what you owe; the amount you have in assets, property, family business records, anything of a financial nature.  Keep records somewhere safe, outside of the home if you spouse still has access to the home. 
  9. Contact the IRS and request copies of the last 5 years of tax returns, unless you already have these. 

Other Important Steps

  1. Don't despair over the situation.  Life will continue and this horrible affair will come to an end.
  2. Get educated.  Read up on divorce; learn all you can about the process, what people go through, the best way to handle things, etc.
  3. Organize your finances.  You need to know how you're going to make it through the next 12 months; you're also going to want to figure out how to afford an attorney.  Don't spend, save as much as you can.
  4. Organize everything that you collect during this time.  Get a folder and notebook.  Take notes, file things where you know you can get them.  Buy a calendar and put down dates, when things are due, when you need to be in court, when you received important papers, etc.

Hire an Attorney 

Unlike many other legal questions a person may have, once served divorce papers you are going to want your rights protected as much as possible.  You won't need one immediately, although they can help you file your answer to the petition.  But during that initial 20 days before the answer is required, use that time to find the best counsel you can.  In some cases, as far as the answer is concerned you may get some free help from family divorce center or other free legal services.  But you will want an attorney you can trust at some point in the proceedings.

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