I was served with divorce papers; what do I do now?

Posted on Jun 26, 2024 by Katie Carter

There are very few things as alarming as being served with legal-looking paperwork and not being sure what that means for you or how to respond.  In general, though, you’re right to be concerned – not that this is the end of the world, but legal paperwork usually means that you’re going to need to act (and probably relatively quickly).

In a divorce context, if you’ve been served it is likely with a complaint, which could also come along with a notice regarding a scheduled hearing.  You should read it and be aware of the allegations in it, but also keep in mind that, in large part, this is a relatively formulaic document.  Attorneys have to include certain details and, while a lot of it might not bother you, you might be irritated to read about the specific grounds your husband has alleged and/or what specific division of the assets, liabilities, and responsibilities he has requested.

This is normal.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone be served with a complaint – especially when they weren’t expecting it – where they weren’t angry about at least some of the things that were contained in it.  While I understand, and your feelings are completely valid, I don’t want you to spiral out of control.  I don’t want you to confront him – not now, not yet.

Because a complaint for divorce has a specific time period during which you must have filed a response with the court (called an answer and counterclaim), it’s more important that you meet with an attorney to formulate your response going forward.  You have to file your response within 21 days so it’s important to start moving things along quickly.

As far as attorneys are concerned, 21 days isn’t lightning speed – at least, not unless there’s also a hearing scheduled – but it does mean that we need to move quickly and with purpose.  Especially if you have questions about how to proceed, it’s important to give yourself as much time as possible so that you can ask those questions, process the answers, and make strategic choices moving forward.

It’s an emotional time.  It’s a scary time.  It’s, probably above all else, an uncertain time.  So it’s important that you don’t make decisions hastily or while you’re feeling angry or afraid.  Take your time to ask questions.  Listen to the answers.  Talk about the advantages and disadvantages of any proposed course of action.  Talk about what might happen at a pendente lite or other hearing and whether there might be an advantage to you to moving forward on it – if only for temporary child and/or spousal support.

If a date has been set for a hearing, ask your attorney whether it can be continued.  In many cases, at this stage, it can be, especially if the date doesn’t work for you or your intended attorney.

Where can you get started?  That’s a good question.

We have a free book for Virginia women on both divorce and custody, as well as a low cost divorce seminar where you can ask questions to one of our licensed and experienced divorce and custody attorneys.

Because you’ve been served, you don’t have a ton of time – you’re going to want to start your search for an attorney sooner rather than later.  In most firms, that’s going to mean that you will schedule an initial consultation, discuss your case, and then be presented with a retainer agreement to hire the lawyer and/or the law firm to represent you.

Unless and until you’ve signed a retainer agreement and paid a retainer fee, you don’t have a lawyer.  Usually, once they’ve been retained, the lawyer will either file a letter with the court declaring their representation of you or file the answer and counterclaim, which will mean that they are officially counsel of record for the court’s purposes.

It is possible to get an extension on the 21 days but, ideally, you will have asked for an extension BEFORE the 21 days has lapsed.  Once you’re past the 21st day, technically the court could move forward with any future petitions without notice to you.  It’s best and safest to respond, even if you’ve responded incompletely, in order to indicate to the court that you intend to appear on your behalf (or have a lawyer do so).

Keep in mind, too, that just because you have started your case in court, that does not mean that you will have to go all the way through the litigated divorce process.  Chances are good that, at some point, you and your soon-to-be ex husband will negotiate and sign a separation agreement; ultimately, very few cases go all the way through to a full divorce trial.

Long story short: Don’t panic.  It’s definitely a scary feeling, but, with the help of a licensed, experienced divorce attorney, you’ll file a response on time and begin to move your divorce case forward.  For more information or to schedule a consultation now, give us a call at 757-425-5200 or visit our website at hoflaw.com.