Receiving divorce papers unexpectedly can result in a shock to the system. And since women have been found to file for divorce up to 70 percent of the time, men are far more likely to be caught off guard with a process server showing up at their home or work to inform them that their marriage is over.
While it is only natural to experience a range of problematical emotions upon receiving formal notice that your spouse has begun the divorce process — particularly when you didn’t see it coming — it is crucial that you recover quickly enough to submit a formal and meticulously crafted response to the petition.
The clock immediately begins ticking once service of the initial divorce papers is complete, and you typically have less than a month to file your response with the court.
This is a critical first step, as you have the opportunity to approve or contest a number of issues your spouse requests in her petition, and it may also set the tone for the divorce process by giving you an idea of what she is after.
Crafting your divorce petition response
When your spouse files for divorce, it is essentially the same thing as filing a lawsuit — moving forward, she will be known as the petitioner and you become the respondent or defendant during the course of the case.
The petition for divorce you are served will contain not only a request to dissolve the marriage, but also a list of scenarios for how your wife feels matters in the divorce should be resolved.
These suggestions can cover pretty much anything, ranging from the division of property and the necessity of alimony to custody arrangements and visitation schedules for children, so it is important to pay attention to what she is asking.
Most courts offer respondents a specific form with boxes to check if you agree or disagree with your spouse’s claims, as well as space to explain why you think any of the demands are unfair. You can then submit a counter-proposal with supporting arguments as to why your recommendation is a better option.
Since the scope of what your spouse can request is so great, it is crucial for you to meticulously craft your response while being mindful of your state’s allotted timeframe (usually 30 days, but it may be less).
For example, your wife can file for divorce and request sole legal and physical custody of your children. However, any active and involved father would obviously find this option unacceptable.
If this is the case, you are able to check the box that you disagree with her suggested plan and then fill in why you think an equal or joint-custody scenario is in the best interests of your children.
If you do not file a response in time, your spouse can then move forward with a default judgement. The court will assume that since you did not bother to respond, you agree with all of your spouse’s requests. This may also forfeit your right to dispute the issues in court, and you may not even be sent a notification for the hearing.
For this reason, it is critical that you submit your response on time to begin a contested divorce.
On the other hand, you can simply check agree on all of the propositions if you feel they are reasonable to begin the divorce uncontested.
Grasping your situation
The initial blow of being served divorce papers will likely leave you feeling a combination of hurt, confused, angry and dejected — not exactly the state of mind you want to be in when you are filling out official documents that will be filed in court.
While it is important that you return your response quickly, you should probably take a few days to fully comprehend your situation before filling out the response. This will allow you to seek the support of family and friends, as well as look into your options for representation.
It is also a good idea to avoid getting into any sort of arguments with your spouse, which may mean trying to minimize interactions with her until you have spoken to legal counsel — the last thing you want to do is get in a heated argument and have a protection order put in place.
You will want to research how your state handles divorce, begin getting copies of important documents together and consult with family law attorneys to get a better idea of how divorce will affect your specific situation.
Additionally, you need to thoroughly read the divorce petition numerous times to fully understand what your wife is claiming so you can develop compelling counter-proposals to any unreasonable requests.
If you decide to retain an attorney, which is highly recommended in a contested divorce, your lawyer will be able to fill out and file the response for you. Otherwise, you will need to look up the procedure for filing the response with your local court on their website or by contacting the courthouse directly.
A surprise divorce is going to completely change your life, and it is important that you take a little time to prepare for what lies ahead. However, you also need to understand the importance of your initial response and how important deadlines will be moving forward.
Even if you don’t want a divorce, there is little you can do to stop it once you are served with the papers.
By that point, the clock is ticking and you have to react appropriately to even have a shot at coming out of the divorce with a semblance of success. A false move this early in the process can potentially dig a hole that is difficult or nearly impossible to overcome.
Mat Camp is a former Lexicon Services Online Editor, who focused on providing a comprehensive look into all aspects of the divorce experience. On MensDivorce.com, he concentrated on issues, such as parenting time, custodial rights, mediation, the division of assets, and so much more.
Mr. Camp used the wealth of experience of Cordell & Cordell attorneys to bring tangible answers to reader questions in Ask a Lawyer articles, as well as offer a step by step process through the divorce experience with Cordell & Cordell Co-Founder and Principal Partner Joseph E. Cordell in Divorce 101: A Guide for Men.
Mr. Camp used thorough research to highlight the challenging reality that those who go through divorce or child custody issues face. He helped foster the continued success of the Men’s Divorce Survival Guide, the Men’s Divorce Podcast, and the Men’s Divorce YouTube series “Attorney Bites.”