Family Law

The Importance of Answering a Divorce Petition

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney

Your spouse just served you with divorce papers, and you're in shock. You may feel angry, frustrated, surprised, relieved, sad, or something else. Whatever your emotions, you need to take the divorce petition seriously. How and when you respond can have a serious impact, both during and after your divorce.

As you read through your spouse’s divorce complaint, it’s important to remain calm and put your thoughts down in writing. Although you may not understand everything, you will still need to file a response. If you have questions about responding to a divorce petition, you should consult with a local family law attorney right away.

When Do I Need to Respond to a Divorce Petition?

Once you're served with a divorce petition, the clock starts ticking. In most cases, you will have between 20 and 30 days to file a response with the court. However, some exceptions may apply, so it’s important to consult with an attorney right away if you don’t understand your response deadline.

What Happens If I Don’t Respond?

If you miss your deadline, the court can enter a default judgment against you. What this means is that a judge may decide to give your spouse everything requested in the divorce petition, because you failed to object. By filing a written response, sometimes called an “Answer,” you can contest any parts of the divorce complaint with which you disagree.

How Do I Respond to the Divorce Complaint?

Divorce petitions are usually organized into different sections regarding facts about the marriage, property descriptions, debt and asset amounts, home mortgage and valuation, and child custody arrangements, if applicable. If you disagree with any part of the divorce petition, you must dispute that section in your response. It’s important to review the complaint carefully because your response must be accurate. In most cases, you won’t have the option to revise your response later on.

If there are large sections of the petition that you don’t understand, you should consult with an attorney. Look for a lawyer who has substantial experience handling divorce cases, which may take a little research. An experienced attorney will ensure that you file an accurate and timely response to your spouse’s divorce petition.

For more information, see Filing For Divorce State-by-State Laws, and click on your particular state.

Does Filing an Answer Start a Divorce Battle?

You can have a civilized divorce even if you file a response to your spouse’s divorce complaint. Many couples realize they want to settle their divorce after the initial divorce paperwork has been filed.

One option is for spouses to use a mediator. Mediators can help you and your spouse reach an agreement and avoid the stress and expense of a divorce trial. Divorce mediators are skilled at identifying the issues that need to be resolved, including the division of debts and assets, allocation of property, and establishing child custody and support amounts. More importantly, an experienced mediator can facilitate communication between you and your spouse so that you can reach a settlement on your own terms. A mediator can’t give you or your spouse legal advice – that’s your attorney's job. However, mediators can help you identify and resolve the issues in your divorce.

Another option is to use a collaborative divorce lawyer.

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