Have I been Virginia divorce or custody paperwork?

Posted on Jan 27, 2020 by Katie Carter


There’s so much confusion and fear when it comes to legal documents, and a lot of that stems from really not having seen similar documents before.

It’s not every day that you get divorced or that you file custody petitions, or are on the receiving end of documents like these prepared by your husband/child’s father or his attorney. It’s especially disconcerting because you probably know – or at least have some sort of fuzzy idea – that documents received by the court require a response within a certain amount of time.

Not only that, but if there’s a return date indicated, you may be facing the realization that – coronavirus pandemic or not – you have to prepare for an upcoming court date.

Not knowing what you’ve received, or what kind of response is required, is anxiety inducing.

If you received an official-looking set of documents from your husband and you’re not sure what it is, what it requires from you, or how to proceed, your first step should probably be to talk to an attorney.

I know, I know. That’s scary. And it means that things might start happening. It’s easy to feel like you’d rather be the ostrich, burying your head in the sand. But that’s really not smart.

If you’ve been served, you have 21 days to respond. And that clock starts ticking, regardless of whether you see an attorney right away. That clock starts ticking regardless of whether you’re even aware that a clock is ticking.

The closer you get to that 21 day period running out, or to a scheduled court hearing, the less options are available to you.

Attorneys need time. They need time to prepare documents. They need even more time to prepare for court hearings. Not only that, but you’re not the only person with deadlines or court hearings that attorneys need to be aware of. Before you ever walk into their office, the attorney has other clients with other deadlines and other court appearances that they need to be aware of. The closer you get to a deadline, the greater the likelihood that you’ll have trouble finding someone to help you.

Having to go with a second or third choice attorney, or not being able to meet a deadline or retain an attorney in time to meet a deadline or have someone at your hearing to represent you, is not a position you want to find yourself in.

It’s one thing to make a careful, calculated, specific choice to go to court without an attorney. (Though I can literally not think of a single reason why you’d ever WANT to let a deadline go by without responding to something that was filed against you!) It’s another thing to wait too long and find out that you’re out of options that you would have liked to have afforded yourself.

Regardless of whether we’re talking here about divorce or custody, the stakes are high. You NEED to respond. You have rights and responsibilities that you need to take into account.

Bottom line: if you’re confused, you really should talk to someone who is used to seeing these documents, and who can tell you what you’ve got, what you need to do, and what will happen next.

I find there’s a lot of confusion over whether something was served, and whether it requires a response.

A proposed agreement – which would likely be mailed or emailed to you – is not served, unless it comes alongside other documents that do need to be served. (I do this sometimes to say, “Yeah, we filed, but if you want to settle this without court, just sign and return this handy proposed agreement that I’ve drafted and included here for your ease and convenience – oh yeah, also included these nifty postage prepaid envelopes, so you literally have to do nothing else!)

A complaint for divorce, or petitions filed with the juvenile court for custody, visitation, and child support, would be served on you.
“Served” may not mean what you think it means, either. In the movies, someone jumps out and tells an unsuspecting person, “You’ve been served” and hands them the documents. Service CAN happen personally – as in, the process server hands the documents to you – but it can also be posted, meaning that it’s left on your door or under your doormat or something like that.

It can be tricky, of course. I hear ALL THE TIME that something was served – or, at least, the prospective client thinks it was served – but that they don’t know when. Whether they usually go in through the garage or they have two front doors and it was left at the “wrong” one, or somehow it was just missed, well, service can go unnoticed.

It’s hard to tell you how to avoid not noticing something that, in your opinion, is just not noticeable. I don’t live at your house, so I can’t do the waiting and watching for you. I can’t even tell you that you may know, from the state of your relationship with your child’s father/husband, when tensions will escalate to the point that he will file, and so you should be on alert. Only you can do that.

All I can do is say to keep a watchful eye, to the best of your ability, and try to have a sense of what’s going on with the other party to your case. That’s not a perfect solution, because I know you don’t know what you don’t know, but it’s the best I can do.

Still, it is quite normal for a husband/child’s father to threaten to file. It is also quite normal for them to file more stealthily, without you being aware that it might be coming.

A good sign that you’re served comes from how you became aware of or received a document. Posted to your door or under your doormat, or handed to you personally, is a good sign.

And, whenever you’re in doubt, it’s a good idea to ask questions.

For more information, or to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys about any mysterious paperwork, give us a call at 757-425-5200. We can help you sort it all out.