The emotion of a divorce is often further complicated by the legal labyrinth you find yourself trying to navigate after you're served with papers. This is especially true if you decide to proceed on your own, without an attorney. Law is famous for its complicated terms, rules and requirements. When your spouse serves you with divorce papers, you usually have a minimum of three different options to respond, depending on the laws of your particular state.
You won’t have an indefinite period of time within which to respond to your spouse’s divorce papers. Some states, such as Florida, give you as little as 20 days. Others, like New Jersey, are more generous and allow you 35 days. Some states count weekends; others count only business days. Your divorce papers should come with a summons or citation. Read this document carefully; it will most likely mention your time limit. If it doesn’t, call the court where your spouse filed her divorce complaint or petition to find out how much time you have.
Appearance or Answer
Your next challenge is to decide how you’re going to respond to your spouse’s papers. State laws vary, so call the court or check your state’s website to find out what avenues are open to you. You should also be able to find the required forms on the website. One option is to file an appearance. This is generally a one-page form telling the court which aspects of your spouse’s complaint you agree with, which you don’t agree with and that you want the opportunity to dispute the parts you object to. A second option is to file a document called an answer, which is similar to an appearance, but it goes into more detail about your objections.
Another option is to file a counterclaim to your spouse’s divorce complaint. This is essentially your own version of a divorce complaint. Your spouse had the opening salvo, but now you get to fire back and present your own case, if you choose to. If you object to your spouse's ground for divorce, such as if she’s accusing you of adultery, you can ask the court to dismiss her ground and grant the divorce on your own ground instead. If she’s asking the court to award her full custody of your children, you can ask the court to deny her request and give you custody instead. It’s generally common for a divorce complaint or petition to ask for extreme relief, because if your spouse doesn’t ask for these things at the outset, it’s legally difficult for her to change her mind later and ask for more. You can object to what she's asking for in an appearance or answer, but you can ask for your own relief in a counterclaim.
The law doesn’t obligate you to do anything in response to your spouse’s divorce papers, but if you don’t, she will probably proceed without you, by default, and the court will give her everything she asked for. It’s usually in your best interest to do something. If you’re unsure about how you want to proceed, consult with an attorney to get advice regarding the particulars of your case. If you run out of time and your deadline is near, in some states you can simply appear at the courthouse on the last day and verbally object to your spouse’s petition. At best, however, this may only buy you a little more time to file a written response.