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How To Respond to Divorce Papers Without an Attorney
By Divorce.com staff
Updated Oct 04, 2022
Receiving divorce papers can be difficult, even if you’re expecting them. They signify what’s to come and urge the need to move on to the next phase of your life. That phase of your life doesn’t need to involve a lawyer if you don’t want it to. There are some circumstances where it’s wise (or even necessary) to hire an attorney to help you with your divorce.
If you’d like to respond to divorce papers on your own, here’s what your next steps should be.
What Are Divorce Papers?
Divorce papers, also known as a divorce petition or a divorce complaint, are paperwork filed with the court that expresses someone’s desire to legally end a marriage. These papers are the first step of the divorce process. The documents may be titled “dissolution of marriage”, rather than divorce.
Who Is the Petitioner in a Divorce?
The petitioner in a divorce is the person who filed for divorce. Only one spouse needs to be present to file for divorce. In some cases, couples can file for divorce together. This is called a joint petition for divorce, and it’s commonly used in cases of simple uncontested divorces.
6 Steps for Responding to Divorce Papers Without an Attorney
There are several ways you can receive divorce papers. Your spouse can deliver them to you, but that’s not often how it will happen. Your spouse probably wants to avoid heated confrontation, so they’ll send you your papers another way.
Some states allow the sheriff’s office to deliver divorce papers for a small fee. If your partner has a lawyer, their law office can serve you with divorce papers. Many people prefer to hire professional process servers to deliver divorce papers.
If you don’t live in the same state or country as your spouse, you might receive divorce papers via registered mail.
Once you’ve received divorce papers, you should:
- Read the papers carefully
- Know your deadline
- File an answer
- Fill out the required divorce forms
- Pay your fees and file the divorce forms
- Get a court order from a judge if necessary
1. Read the Papers Carefully
Divorce papers will tell you where the petition was filed and how long you have to respond. These are the two most important pieces of information you need to respond to the divorce papers. The papers may also state a reason for the divorce, as well as information about child custody.
It’s important to read every paragraph of your divorce papers. There’s a good chance you won’t agree to everything in the papers. Take note of the things you don’t agree with. In your answer to the papers, you’ll have an opportunity to formally disagree.
The papers will tell you if your spouse filed the papers on their own or if they hired an attorney. If your spouse hired an attorney, you may want to consider hiring an attorney. It can be difficult to navigate divorce with an imbalance of power. If your spouse has a lawyer and you do not, you’re less likely to feel that the final outcome of your divorce is fair.
2. Know Your Deadlines
Each state gives the recipient of divorce papers a specific period of time to respond. In most states, this period of time is 30 days. Your divorce papers should specifically state how long you have to respond. The sooner you respond, the better your outcome will be. This is especially true if you intend to file a counterclaim with your answer.
3. File an Answer
Your answer is simply a confirmation that you’ve received the petition and acknowledge what it says. You should file an answer as soon as possible. Failing to answer won’t buy you more time or stall the process. If you disagree with anything in the divorce paperwork, you need to file an answer that makes your disagreement clear.
If you don’t file an answer, the divorce can move ahead without you. A judge will make all the decisions and you won’t have a chance to be heard. The divorce will likely work out completely in your partner’s favor. Don’t procrastinate.
You can respond with a simple answer form. The answer form will state what parts of the divorce petition you agree with and what parts you don’t agree with. Filling out the form is simple. You only need to list paragraph numbers to flag your areas of disagreement.
You can also answer with a counterclaim. A counterclaim is when you request that the court orders something on your behalf, like child support or spousal support.
4. Fill Out the Required Divorce Forms
You’ll respond to divorce papers with paperwork of your own. This includes response forms, financial disclosures, preliminary injunctions, and other state or local forms. Divorce.com offers tailored online forms that you can use during this part of the process.
This process is important for two reasons. The first reason is that the court requires it. The second reason is that it will give you an opportunity to get your affairs in order. While you’re filling out forms and financial disclosures, it’s a good idea to use that time to get organized.
You’ll want to be particularly mindful of your assets during this process. If your spouse is filing for divorce, consider any joint accounts you have. You might need legal help for this part of the process. In some cases, all assets are immediately frozen when someone files for divorce to prevent dishonest behavior. This can affect you, even if your behavior is completely honest.
You may be able to withdraw your portion of funds from a joint account and place it into a separate account. It’s best to clarify what you’re allowed to do. You’re always allowed to run a credit check on yourself and verify that you’re aware of all the debts you find, and dispute any debts that look suspicious. It’s important to manage your financial health.
There’s also a form called a preliminary injunction. The preliminary injunction states that you can’t hide or sell marital property, move children away from your spouse, or harass your spouse or their family. If your spouse already filled out this form, you don’t have to. If you haven’t received a preliminary injunction, you can file one.
5. Pay Your Fees and File the Divorce Forms
You can bring your forms to the court where the divorce petition was filed or file them online if the court allows. You’ll also have to pay a filing fee. The filing fee is different in every state. It ranges between $80 and $400.
If you cannot afford to pay the filing fee, you can request a waiver from the court that will allow you to file for free or defer the filing fee until you’re able to pay it.
After you file, you need to serve your spouse with your answer. The court doesn’t serve paperwork. It’s your responsibility to make sure your spouse receives your answer. If your spouse used a lawyer, you can bring your answer to the lawyer’s office and avoid contact with your spouse.
If your spouse didn’t use your lawyer, you’ll need to give them your answer another way. It’s not a good idea to serve these papers in person while tensions may be high. You can avoid a confrontation by having these papers served by an impartial third party. In some places, you can hire the sheriff’s office to serve the papers for a small fee. You can also hire a professional process server to deliver the papers.
6. Get a Court Order From a Judge If Necessary
Divorce can take a long time. You may not be able to wait a long time if your well-being or the well-being of your child is caught in limbo during your divorce. You can request temporary court orders for child support, child custody, or the acquisition of certain assets.
If your spouse filed for divorce and took off, leaving the children with you, you may be able to request a temporary child support order to provide for your children until a permanent order is in place. If your spouse moved out before filing the papers, you can request that the car you’re using or the house you live in will become your property.
You’ll fill out a form requesting what you need. Your spouse needs to be served with a paper called an Order to Show Cause, which is their opportunity to state why they shouldn’t have to comply with your request. If they agree to your request or fail to demonstrate why they shouldn’t be ordered to comply, the judge will grant a temporary order.
This order will stand until your divorce is finalized. Your divorce will contain a permanent version of the order. Child support amounts or custody arrangements may change throughout the course of your divorce. The final outcome may be different from the temporary outcome.
Consider Other Options
People can spend as much as $10,000 on an attorney throughout the duration of a divorce. That’s a lot of money, especially if you have children to provide for. If your only reason for forgoing an attorney is the cost, there are resources that can help. Local nonprofits and legal funds help to appoint attorneys to people who couldn’t otherwise afford an attorney.
You only need an attorney if your spouse isn’t willing to approach the divorce neutrally. If your spouse won’t provide important documents or disclose the information you need, the only way to obtain that information is through the court.
If you’re able to have a civil conversation with your spouse, there are other ways to successfully approach your divorce without a lawyer. Divorce mediation is a valuable alternative. You can respond to your divorce papers without an attorney, and then take your divorce to mediation. Mediation is a process where an impartial third party will listen to you and your spouse. You’ll both want different things. It’s the mediator’s job to find a happy medium.
Divorce.com offers on-demand mediation services to couples who are willing to talk through their differences and create an amicable divorce environment. We’ll begin with a consultation to identify the areas of disagreement and work towards proposing solutions that everyone can live with.
Mediation is much less expensive than working with an attorney. In some cases, five hours of mediation can cost as much as one hour of a lawyer’s time. Since the mediator works for both you and your spouse, you can split the costs of mediation.
What Happens if I Don’t Respond to My Divorce Papers?
If you don’t respond to your divorce papers, your spouse will be granted a divorce with all of the stipulations they required. Failing to respond to divorce papers will cause something called a default divorce.
Your partner can request a default divorce where the judge decides the terms of the divorce before it’s granted. Usually, the divorce will work in your spouse’s favor. They’ll likely get much of what they asked for unless you respond with valid reasons why they shouldn’t.
In some cases, an attorney is necessary. If you can’t afford an attorney, there are resources that can help. If you would prefer to avoid using an attorney, methods like divorce mediation can be valuable alternatives to a messy, long, and expensive court divorce.
Respond to your divorce papers as soon as possible, and begin thinking about the best way to approach your divorce. Divorce.com has many of the resources you need to simplify your divorce without breaking the bank.