What Happens When You Are Served Divorce Papers?

By Christine Funk, J.D.

What Happens When You Are Served Divorce Papers?

By Christine Funk, J.D.

Two things happen when you are served divorce papers. First, you are formally put on notice that your spouse has filed a petition (sometimes referred to as a complaint) asking that the court dissolve your marriage. The petition may include proposed distribution of assets and debts, custody of the children, child support, and alimony obligations.

Upset woman with her hand on her forehead holding her wedding band

Second, when you are properly served, this starts a clock in family law court. In every state, there is a limit to the amount of time you have to file an answer to your spouse's divorce petition. The number of days you have varies from state to state. However, in every state, the countdown begins the day you are served with your divorce papers.

Filing an Answer

Once you are served with divorce papers, you have two options. You can ignore the filing, in which case your divorce will proceed by default. This means the court will likely grant whatever request your spouse makes regarding the division of property and debt, child custody, child support, and alimony. Alternatively, you can file an answer with the court.

In your answer, you respond to the petition filed. Some states allow for grounds for divorce such as adultery, abandonment, and emotional or physical cruelty. You can respond to and/or allege grounds of your own. Your response could also propose a different allocation of assets and debts, or address issues like child support, alimony, and child custody.

In other states, however, a person can file for divorce based on irreconcilable differences or an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. If one person believes the marriage cannot be repaired under “no fault" grounds, the other person's opinion on the matter is of no consequence.

Serving an Answer

Just as the law requires your spouse to legally serve you with divorce papers, you must legally serve them with your answer. Do not attempt to deliver the papers yourself as this is not considered legal service. Instead, when you file the papers with the court, talk to the clerk about using the Sheriff's office for service. You can also use a process server.

In either event, you must file an answer and make certain it is served under compliance with the law. You'll also have to pay a filing fee; if you can't afford it, then ask the clerk about proceeding in forma pauperis. This means proceeding without having to pay the filing fee, based on your indigent status.

Missing the Filing Deadline

As stated above, there is a deadline for filing an answer to a divorce petition or complaint. If you miss the deadline, you put yourself at a disadvantage. However, it is still possible you can participate in the divorce proceedings. If you miss the filing deadline, contact the court clerk as soon as possible. Explain you missed the deadline and ask if you can have an extension.

If both you and your spouse are in agreement, you can proceed with an uncontested divorce. Here, you let the court know about your plan for divorce, from property and debt division to child custody and support, as well as alimony, where applicable. Baring any legal issues with your agreement, the court signs off on your agreement, often without an appearance in court.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.

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