What to Do When You Receive Divorce Papers

By Beverly Bird

Updated April 01, 2020

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Ideally, receiving divorce papers from your spouse won’t come as a shock to you, and you won’t get them at work when curious co-workers are watching. After you get over the hurdle of initial emotion, take as firm a grip as possible on your common sense. Begin taking proactive steps forward.

Read the Papers

The papers you receive will tell you whether your spouse is handling the divorce on his own or if he’s hired an attorney. If he’s hired an attorney, the firm name will usually be at the top left corner of the first page. The papers should also include a summons or citation. This will tell you how long you have to do something about the papers. This time frame is usually about a month, so you don’t have to rush out and take action immediately. However, you can’t plunge your head into the sand, either. If you don’t do anything within that time frame, your spouse can file for default, and that probably won’t work out well for you. A court could potentially give him everything he’s asking for in his divorce complaint.

Decide on an Attorney

If your spouse has hired an attorney to handle the divorce, you’re probably going to need one as well. If your spouse hasn’t hired an attorney, consider interviewing a few of your own anyway. You’ll learn a great deal about what lies ahead. If your spouse decides to retain counsel midway through the divorce, which is his right, you’ll have already laid the groundwork to hire someone yourself. You can also hire an attorney simply to draw up your responsive pleadings for you, the answer you’ll have to file to your spouse’s complaint within a month or so. Some lawyers will consult with you on an hourly basis, as needed; you don’t necessarily have to retain someone.

Organize and Prepare

Take a day -- or more, if necessary -- to get your ducks in a row. As the months progress, you’re probably going to begin accumulating a great deal of paperwork, both from the court and from your attorney, if you use one. Letters from your attorney may well contain strategic information and suggestions. You don’t want these things to fall into your spouse’s hands, so rent a safe deposit box where you can begin storing everything safely. Start copying tax returns and financial documents, and secure them, also. Make an inventory of your assets, especially smaller items that might get "lost" as your divorce progresses. Gather everything you might need in the months ahead and put it in a safe place before your spouse can begin removing documentation from your home to give to his own attorney.

Hold Your Ground

If you have children together, don’t move out without consulting an attorney first. If domestic violence is an issue, an attorney can guide you to your best recourse. You’re generally not within the law to take your kids with you if you leave, and if you go without them, you’re indicating to a court that you think your spouse is a great custodial parent and your children are just fine living with him. Even if you don’t have children, if you leave, you’ve lost your opportunity to lay your hands on that one document you might have neglected to make a copy of, and you could inadvertently be telling the court that you don't care if you get to keep the house.