Like most civil litigation, a divorce in New York state begins with the filing of a civil complaint and summons in the state's trial court, called the Supreme Court. After one spouse files for divorce, the time frame for the other spouse to file his answer to the divorce complaint depends on the how he is given notice of the divorce proceedings.
When a complaint for divorce is filed with the court, the petitioner -- the spouse who filed the complaint -- is given a copy of a summons to send to her spouse, who is called the respondent. If the petitioning party serves her spouse only with a copy of the divorce summons -- without including a copy of the civil complaint -- the responding spouse has only 20 days to react to the pending lawsuit. Since the respondent does not have sufficient information about the case filed against him, New York law allows him to notify the court of his intent to respond to the filings by submitting a Notice of Appearance. When submitting this Notice, the respondent also should file a Demand for Complaint, which gives notice that the petitioning spouse must provide a copy of the complaint for divorce for the respondent to answer.
Once the responding spouse receives a copy of the complaint filed in court and signed by the petitioning spouse, also known as a Verified Complaint, he must file an answer with the court within 20 days. This deadline is imposed regardless of whether he received the complaint at the same time as the summons or later. Therefore, if the respondent is given the summons and complaint at the same time, he only has 20 days to file an answer, not 40.
Answer and Counterclaims
Within the 20 day after receiving the Complaint for Divorce, the respondent may choose to file an answer, or to file an Answer and Counterclaim for Divorce. In an answer, the respondent gives relatively simple answers to each paragraph in the complaint. His answer can be that he "admits" or "denies" what the paragraph says, or that he is unaware of the factual assertion. If the respondent wishes to challenge the facts set forth in the complaint by asserting his own facts and assert his own claim for divorce, then he must file an Answer and Counterclaim for divorce. The counterclaim must be filed at the same time as the answer. Once he files the counterclaim with the court, the petitioning spouse has 20 days to file her response.
Failing to Respond
A respondent's failure to timely respond to either the summons or Verified Complaint could have serious consequences over his property and child custody rights. If 45 days passes and the responding spouse fails to file an Answer, the petitioning spouse could essentially win by default; the court may accept all of the petitioning spouse's allegations as true and grant the divorce on the terms set forth in her complaint. This action would not only approve the petition for divorce, but may also grant the petitioner child support, alimony and marital property in accordance with the terms set in the Complaint without the respondent's input.