Can You Just Not Do Anything in a Divorce if You Are the Respondent?

By Heather Frances J.D.

Your spouse is required to serve you with divorce papers after she files for divorce, including her divorce petition, or complaint, and a summons. Generally, the summons lists deadlines for you to respond to the petition or provides scheduling information for your initial appearance in court. If you choose to ignore the summons, the court still may enter a judgment against you.

Responding to a Divorce Petition

All states allow a certain period of time -- usually about a month -- for a spouse to respond to divorce papers. You have various response options. For example, you can file a simple appearance, acknowledging that you got the papers and give consent to the court’s jurisdiction, or you can file an answer registering your agreement - or disagreement - with your spouse’s statements. You may also file an answer and counterclaim combination, in which you answer your spouse’s statements but also make claims of your own.

Doing Nothing

If you wish to dispute something in the paperwork your spouse filed, you typically must file that response within the time allowed. Failing to respond won’t stop your case from going forward. Instead, your spouse can request a default judgment from the court after the period to respond expires, and a default judgment is just as binding on you as any judgment the court may have issued if you had responded.

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Advantages to Your Spouse

When you don’t respond, the judge is likely to order most or all of the things your spouse requested in her divorce petition. The month or so during which you get to submit your response is your chance to explain your side to the court. If you do not take part in the proceedings, you are unable to defend your interests, so the judge only hears your spouse’s side of the story, which often means your spouse gets what she asked for in the original petition. If you do nothing, it may look like you don't disagree with your spouse's petition.

Setting Aside a Default Judgment

If the court enters a default judgment in your case, you may have a limited time and limited ability to set aside -- or reverse -- that judgment. The exact time frames and standards for setting aside the default judgment vary by state. If you do nothing during that limited time, the judgment or divorce decree is final. Special protections apply if you are in the military; for example, your spouse must disclose your military status.

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How Do I File a Response to Divorce Papers?


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Types of Pleadings in a Divorce

Like any legal matter, divorces can generate reams of paperwork. It can be a bit overwhelming, especially when terminology and requirements vary from state to state. The good news is that most states follow similar guidelines for pleadings. The bad news is that individual states sometimes call the same pleadings by different names.

Responding to a Divorce by Certified Mail

If your spouse files a divorce petition to initiate divorce proceedings, you must respond to this petition by the deadline to avoid a default judgment. You may file your answer in person with the court clerk or by certified mail. You must also submit a copy of your answer to your spouse or his attorney by certified mail.

What Is a Counterclaim for Divorce?

When your spouse serves you with divorce papers, the worst thing you can do is nothing. If you don't respond, you run the risk of having the judge grant your spouse everything she asked for in her petition or complaint for divorce. You could find that you've lost custody, or a fair division of your marital property. You have a choice regarding how to answer your spouse's divorce papers, and a counterclaim offers you the most protection.

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