Whether you are expecting it or not, getting served with divorce papers is often a sobering and stressful experience. Your marriage has ended and even though you might have known this was coming, it’s still sometimes striking to have the tangible proof delivered to you. If you aren’t sure what to do first, you are not alone. Here is a step-by-step guide to what your actions should be after you are served with divorce papers.
Step One: I’ve Been Served With Divorce Papers
After accepting the papers (and no, you should not try to avoid being served!), your first action should be to read them in their entirety. Make special note of any dates listed. You will need to make a response by a certain date, so mark that down right away on your calendar or put it in your phone. You will generally have three weeks or so to respond to the complaint and you aren’t going to want to miss that date.
Note that if you decide not to respond, you won’t be preventing the divorce from taking place; you’ll just be telling the court that you don’t want to be involved with the proceedings. They will go on without you.
Also note that if there is a temporary custody order, your spouse might be able to take your children and have sole custody of them until the hearing. Be sure to read these papers over carefully.
Step Two: Seek Out Legal Counsel
You have a few options here if served with divorce papers. If your budget is no issue and you want to hire a private attorney, now is the time to find one. If, like most people served with divorce papers, money is a consideration, you can use a legal advocacy group instead. This is a group of legal professionals who will help you represent yourself in court. They can help you get your paperwork organized, fill out the forms, compile documents, keep track of dates, counsel you on your court appearance (if needed), set you up with other professionals that you might need through the process, and keep your documents stored safely after the divorce and custody agreements are finalized.
Step Three: File a Response to the Divorce Paperwork
When you send in your response after being served with divorce papers, the judge will often want to meet with you and your spouse to find out if you can settle your case amicably. If you and your spouse agree to most of the stipulations of the divorce (for example, where the children will live most of the time, who will get the house, how to distribute retirement accounts, etc.), then the case can settle. This is a relatively quick process, depending on the state, and it will also, in most cases, be your least expensive option.
If you cannot agree on some of the major components of the divorce, don’t worry: This does not mean that you will necessarily have to go to trial. Keep in mind that only approximately one out of 20 divorce cases go to trial; the vast majority settle out of court.
Step Four: Seek Mediation
Many times, the next step is to seek the services of a mediator after being served with divorce papers. This is a neutral third party who will help you and your spouse come to agreements and compromises as you go through your divorce process. He or she will be able to help you decide on matters pertaining to custody, the marital home, bank accounts, and so on. Sometimes mediation takes more than one try; there’s no harm in leaving the first mediation session and mulling things over together and individually before returning for a second session.
Step Five: Create a Parenting Plan
Ideally, you and your spouse will be able to create a parenting plan that gives both of you time with your children. If you can’t, a mediator might be able to help. In some cases, a guardian ad litem (GAL) will be necessary. This is a person who meets with you and your spouse separately to glean insight into your respective relationships with your children. Depending on the ages of your children, the GAL might meet with them, too. He or she will also often interview some of your friends and family members. This process is used when it’s anticipated that a judge will need to make a custody decision; if the two of you can make the decision on your own, then you can simply put together the parenting plan and go from there.
Step Six: Settle or Go to Court
At this point, some divorces will already be finalized, while others will necessitate getting ready for court dates. Most divorce cases do settle before the court date; in some cases, it might be mere days ahead of time. In most cases, it’s beneficial to agree to a settlement. Court cases can take many months or even years and can cost a lot of money.
Your legal advocacy group will help you weigh your options as you go through the process of deciding to settle or go to court. No matter which route you and your spouse take, it will end with a divorce and, if applicable, a custody and child support judgment.
Step Seven: Rebuild Your Life
After a divorce, you might feel traumatized and worn out. This is normal and common. Take some time to decide how you want to go about building your life back up. You will need to take an inventory of your financial situation and consider when you will have your children (and when you won’t). With the rest of your life ahead of you, it’s fine to take some time to rest and get to know yourself as a single person. As the months and years pass, you will need to make some big decisions, but for the immediate period following the divorce settlement or trial, feel free to lay low and consider what you might want to do next.