Few things are more unnerving than being served with a lawsuit — especially when that lawsuit is a divorce initiated by your spouse. The moment the papers are placed into your hand, and you realize what these papers are, you may have feelings of panic. This feeling is natural, but it is not helpful. Once you have been served with divorce papers, whether personally or other means, you have a limited amount of time to take action. In the District of Columbia, you have 21 days to respond to the lawsuit after being served with a divorce complaint and summons. In Maryland, you have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit (or 60 if you were served outside the state and 90 if you were served outside the country).
In short, you do not have a lot of time to respond. Therefore, there are two things you want to do immediately: ensure that your response is timely filed and ensure that it is correct and truthful. Failing to respond to a lawsuit after being served with divorce papers is not an option, as this inaction can lead to your spouse seeking a default judgment against you. Generally, what that means is that once the time for you to respond to the lawsuit expires, your spouse can ask the court for permission to proceed with the divorce without your participation.
The first thing you need to do after being served with divorce papers is to take a deep breath and carefully read the divorce complaint. The person who filed the complaint is called the plaintiff; the person it was filed against (you) is the defendant.
The complaint will make certain allegations to which you will need to respond point by point. Among other things, it will state:
Ultimately, you will agree with some of the items contained within the complaint, and you will likely disagree with some items. The complaint was signed under oath by your spouse; while this does not mean that the assertions are accurate, hopefully it means your spouse did not put anything in the complaint that they knew to be false. Your answer to the complaint will also be under oath, so you will want to answer truthfully. Of course, you will also want to be thoughtful in generating your responses since you don’t want to make any unintentional false statements, either. That’s why it is critical to go through the complaint carefully to be certain that you understand all of the allegations before responding to them.
One of the most important things to make note of within the summons that accompanied the divorce complaint is your deadline for filing an answer with the court and serving it upon your spouse.
Most people benefit from an attorney’s help when they have been served with divorce papers. Especially if your spouse already has a divorce lawyer, you will likely want a divorce attorney of your own to protect your interests. Remember that court clerks cannot give you legal advice, and no matter what your spouse says, their lawyer is obligated to only act in their best interests — not yours.
Even though you need to act quickly, that doesn’t mean you need to act rashly or hire the first attorney who will see you. You will probably want to interview at least a few people to make sure you are choosing the right divorce attorney for your needs. Attorneys are people too, with different approaches, personalities, and types of experience. The outcome of your divorce may impact the rest of your life, so your choice of attorney will likely have a profound effect upon your divorce.
When you reach out to a family law attorney’s office, be sure to clearly communicate that you have already been recently served with divorce papers. The attorney or their support staff will understand that the matter is time-sensitive and should schedule an initial consultation and case evaluation as soon as possible. Be sure to ask the attorney’s office what information you should bring to your consultation to make it most productive.
Being served with divorce papers can feel overwhelming and as if you are on your own. Consulting with an experienced divorce attorney should help you feel as if you have someone on your side who can help you navigate this complex process. The right divorce attorney will give you the guidance you need based upon their years of experience but will also empower you to make decisions rather than simply telling you what to do. In short, it should feel like a partnership, and your attorney should be someone you trust to advocate for you.