The complaint is the document that truly starts the divorce process. The required contents of a divorce complaint vary by state, but generally a divorce complaint states the parties' place of residence and how long they lived there; the date of the marriage; minor children born of the marriage; property of the marriage; other court actions involving the parties; the date of separation; and whether either party is receiving public assistance. It also asks the court for the relief that the spouse filing the complaints is asking for, such as child support, custody and spousal support.
The answer is a written response to the divorce petition or complaint. It tells the court that you want to be involved in the legal process. It is also a response to the specific allegations of the divorce complaint. Sometimes, response documents are located on your county's judicial services website for you to fill out. If you do not file an answer in the time allotted by law -- usually 20 to 30 days -- the court may take as true the contents of the complaint, and your spouse could obtain the divorce along with almost anything she asked for in the complaint document.
When you file a simple notice of appearance, you are just letting the court know that you want to be involved in the legal divorce process and to receive notices regarding scheduling deadlines and hearings. If you do not file a formal answer, but you appear at a scheduled court hearing, you will be allowed to participate in the proceeding because you have entered an appearance by showing up. It is important that you keep the court aware of your current contact information to ensure the court can contact you about important dates, such as future hearings. Remember that a notice of appearance generally doesn't constitute an answer.
The counterclaim is the responding spouse's own complaint for divorce or other relief. If you file a counterclaim and the petitioning spouse has a change of heart and dismisses her complaint, the divorce will still go forward on the basis of the counterclaim. Filing a counterclaim lets the court know what you want and provides a way for you to assert your own claims. In a counterclaim, you can ask the court to order your spouse to pay for alimony, to divide up the marital property, to order your spouse to pay some or all of the marital debts or to give you a part of any pensions or retirement benefits. It also gives you the chance to tell your side of the story to the court. You can use the counterclaim to correct what you believe are errors in the petition. For example, if you disagree with the date of separation your spouse stated in the complaint, you can tell the court what you believe to be the true date.