It is normal to be confused and a little scared when served with divorce papers. Sometimes you may be served by a sheriff or a private process server. Sometimes you are served at home in front of the child and sometimes at work. No matter how it happens, you need to know how to proceed.
Knock. Knock. You hear the door and upon opening it you are giving legal documents with a summons by a process server or the sheriff. This can be a frightening and confusing time for anyone. Especially if you did not know that you were going to be served with divorce papers.
Some spouses have their wife/husband served at work and some at home. No matter how it is effectuated, the first thing you need to do is to not panic. The process server is just doing their job, so it is not a good idea to yell at them or blame them. They can also be used as a witness, so be careful.
Make sure you read the title of the documents served and that you have actually be served with divorces papers, and not a domestic violence injunction by a police officer, or some other legal documents. Those other types of legal proceedings that are beyond the scope of this guide.
If you have been served with a petition for dissolution of marriage, then calm down and start reading the paperwork.
Read the paperwork- NOW
I know it is confusing, but I have had a number of people come to see me that either did not even look at the paperwork or did not read certain documents they were served with.
In Hillsborough County, Florida, where I practice, if your case involves minor children, a standing order is put in place in your divorce case and you must abide by that standing order. You need to read the standing order and understand what the Court expects of you.
Read everything and then read it again.
Again, an enormous amount of your petition package that you were served with is legal jargon, but do your best to understand what you were served with and take notes on a separate sheet of paper if possible! There are a number of people I have met with that have burned the midnight oil by staying up a highlighting and writing notes all over their petition, their spouses financial affidavit and any other motions that were filed.
Again, if you hire an attorney, or if you represent yourself during your case, you may need those documents, so please make a copy of the documents or write notes on a separate sheet of paper. You may want to start a divorce journal at this time, and writing notes in this journal would be a great start.
Calendar your deadline for answering the petition
If your summons states that you have 20 days to answer, then you need to abide by the petition. The normal amount of time to answer a petition for dissolution of marriage is 20 days and you must file your answer in the Court file prior to that deadline or your spouse may move for a default on your case. Also, calendar any dates in your case.
Do you have a case management order in your packet of paperwork?
If you are in Hillsborough County, you probably should. If you do not- call the clerk’s office immediately if you do not have that case management order in your packet of papers you were served with just to make sure when your next Court date is. See if there are any notices of hearings that inadvertently may not have been included in your paperwork as well. If you do have a notice of hearing or any other notices of dates to comply with in your case, calendar those dates as well.
Get on the internet or look for a referral to an attorney
You should start looking for an attorney immediately. Even if you do not retain an attorney for the case and you decide to proceed Pro Se (unrepresented) you would be better off served at least speaking to an attorney about some of the possibilities of things that you can plead for and if you need to file a Counter-Petition or not (beyond the scope of this guide, speak to an attorney about it if you have any other questions!) or any other emergency matters that need to be handled. While you are on the internet, start reading up on divorce topics on this site and other helpful sites to give you a basic understanding of divorce in Florida. Also, go to a bookstore and look at books on divorce, which again, are not a substitute for a lawyer, as they are not tailored to your specific set of circumstances, but they may be helpful in understanding the general process.
Jurisdiction: Hillsborough County, FL
Schedule one or more initial consultations with attorneys
Do yourself a favor. Get an attorney that you can live with. I have had cases that lasted years. It all depends on the facts and the parties involved. Normally, you don’t want a divorce to last that long, but sometimes complex cases and litigious cases do last a while.
So wouldn’t it be a good idea to find an attorney that you can deal with?
You are interviewing the attorney, just the same as the attorney is interviewing you at an initial consultation.
You can try to get free consultations, but at these consultations the attorneys may not give you any legal advice as it is usually just a way for the attorney to get some background in order to quote you an amount for your case. On the other hand, if you want an in-depth initial consultation, sometimes you will have to pay in order to sit down and get a good analysis of how the attorney would proceed in your set of circumstances and give you a background on Florida Divorce law.
Decide whether or not you want to represent yourself
The Florida Courts website is an amazing resource. www.flcourts.org as are many counties court’s websites that give information to parties that wish to proceed pro se (unrepresented) during their divorce. Some counties have forms clinics at the courthouse that you should look into if you wish to proceed without an attorney. Additionally, if you meet the standards for legal aid, you should speak to the different legal aid offices around the county to see if you qualify and if they can help you with your case.
You have a number of things that will be due very soon (i.e., mandatory disclosure, financial affidavit, discovery you were served with, etc.) so you need to know what these things are and how to prepare them.
File your responsive pleading
This guide cannot help you with what to file; as I said before, it is different in every case, under every set of circumstances.
Just make sure you DO FILE SOMETHING. Do not let your deadline come and pass thinking the judge may just give you a pass. Trust me, it is much more expensive for an attorney to un-do something that was done incorrectly (if they even can un-do it) rather than do it correctly in the first place.
So since this is a legal guide just for what to do in those first few days right after you are served with divorce papers in Hillsborough County, it is clear that it is beyond to scope for what needs to happen next or what may happen in other states or even some other counties. I would suggest you speak to an attorney to determine what is the best way to proceed in your case and what the law is in your jurisdiction, and they should be able to tell you what to file in your case in response to the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.
Written by: William S. Foley, Esquire
For more information, please see William S. Foley’s website