Originally published by The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC Blog.
If you have been served with a petition for divorce or a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship, then you may have questions about how to proceed. It’s probably pretty clear to you that your spouse or the other parent to your child has filed a lawsuit against you, but after that, you are unclear on exactly what you should be doing. Do you need to file something yourself? Should you hire a lawyer? If you were served with the papers at a park or in a parking lot is that legitimate?
My first piece of advice on this subject is to at all times remain calm. A process server or constable has been hired by your opposing party’s attorney to go to the courthouse, pick up the documents from the court and give them to you. This has the effect of providing you with legal notice of the lawsuit having been filed. If you are approached by a person with paperwork that looks important you should receive the papers. There is no benefit to running away, throwing them on the ground or refusing to comply. Your opposing party will get “credit” for serving you notice of the lawsuit no matter what you do at that point.
Another point that I would like to make is that your spouse will get credit for having served you no matter where you are served. Many people are served at their home. Some are served at work. Others are served at doctor’s appointments, family member’s homes or other places that they regularly visit. Your opposing party will coordinate this with their attorney and the process server. Do not be surprised to be served if your spouse has spoken to you about filing for divorce or for a child custody case.
Do not make assumptions about what the paperwork you are served with says
One thing that I have noticed that people tend to do after they are served with a Petition for Divorce is that they will immediately read and become frustrated with what they are reading. The legal terms that are used in a Petition are often utilized in different ways than we would use those same words in everyday conversation. So, while you may think a phrase or request means one thing- it likely means something completely different.
With that said, you can read through what has been handed to you- it is your case after all. But, until you speak to an attorney do not make any hard and fast assumptions or determinations about what has been written in those documents. Requests for attorney’s fees to be paid by you is a common request in a Petition. When you file your Answer to that petition your attorney will likely make the same request of your spouse. It is not something to get immediately upset about.
What happens with the timeline of your case once you are served with a Petition?
The timeline or “clock” begins to tick as soon as you are served. The process server will report back to the courthouse with a document certifying that you were served with the Petition on that day at the specific time you were provided notice of the lawsuit. From there, a couple of different things happen.
First, you now have twenty days to file an Answer. Technically you have until the first Tuesday at 10:00 after the expiration of twenty days to file your Answer. An Answer is your legal response to the allegations and requests made by your opposing party in their Petition. It is not a complex legal document, but rather alerts the court that you are intending to participate in the lawsuit and have responses ready to the allegations made in the Petition. Most importantly, by filing an Answer you keep the opposing party in your case from getting a default judgment.
As simply as I can put it, a default judgment is a legal judgment that your spouse can get from a judge if it is shown that you were provided notice of the lawsuit, were served properly and then never filed an Answer. In order to keep your having not filed an Answer from delaying the end of the case, your spouse can then proceed to court after 60 days to have the judge sign into effect final orders that were created by her. You are bound by those orders even though you never laid eyes on them. Therefore, filing an Answer is a very important step in your legal case.
What should your reaction be after getting served?
We have already talked about how you should react at the moment that you are served. Well, you should continue to act calmly and rationally after the fact, as well. Speaking to an attorney as soon as you can is a good idea. I always advise potential clients of the Law Office of Bryan Fagan to speak to a handful of attorneys in order to get a good idea of what the issues are, to learn as much about the process as possible and to get a feel for the attorney herself. Once you have interviewed enough attorneys to feel comfortable you can make arrangements to hire one.
The lawyer will take care of filing an Answer for you. However, he or she will certainly ask you for information about your family in order to not only file an Answer but to prepare for the next stages of your case. The attorney should inform you that your case is a marathon and not a sprint. You may want to take action immediately to address inconsistencies or “lies” in the Petition. You will get that opportunity, but it likely will not come in front of a judge- more on that later.
For now, you should enter the mindset that you are not going to contact your spouse unless you absolutely have to. Communication regarding your child is fine as long as you can be civil. You do not need to speak to your spouse if he or she is being uncivil or nasty to you. By the same token, you should not act that way towards him or her.
Consider not logging onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media until your case is over with. Family law attorneys are good at getting dirt on the opposing party and social media is a great place to look. For example, if you log into a social media account and say nasty things about your spouse and make this out to be World War III then that is information that certainly would be interesting to your spouse and their attorney. Do not give your spouse any ammunition to be used against you later. Work with your attorney, work to see your kids and play nice in the sandbox.
An alternative to filing an Answer: signing a Waiver of Service
There is one other way to respond to your spouse’s Petition for Divorce that we have not yet discussed in today’s blog post. That would be signing and filing a Waiver of Service. If you and your spouse are on speaking terms, agree on whatever issues exist in your case, and want to work together from the start to finish your divorce as quickly as possible then you can sign a Waiver of Service.
A few items to consider before signing a Wavier of Service. First, you need to read the Waiver carefully. Usually, if you have already hired an attorney, he or she will advise against you signing the document no matter what it says. However, if you do not believe that hiring an attorney is necessary then a Waiver can be signed. This happens with some frequency in situations where you and your spouse have talked through the divorce in a detailed fashion and have agreements in place on all issues related to your case.
Most waivers tell a court that you have received the Petition for Divorce (thereby proving that you have notice of the filing of a lawsuit) but waiver your right to be personally served with the lawsuit. From there, you will provide your contact information to the court so that they can have it on record if official mailing from the judge has to be sent out for any reason.
Temporary Orders: What they are and what they mean to your family law case
Filing for divorce, being served and then having an Answer filed can be looked at as the first step in the divorce process. Step number two involves something called Temporary Orders. This is a step where the marching orders for you and your opposing party will be established during the duration of your case. It is important that you be able to either negotiate for or have a judge award a fair array of temporary orders because the final orders in your case tend to mirror the temporary orders to a great extent.
If your case involves children then the temporary orders will deal primarily with them. Visitation, child support, conservatorship, etc. will all be dealt with. These orders will be signed by you, your opposing party and the judge. In a divorce, issues related to bills, property, temporary spousal support and other circumstances specific to your case will be hammered out. Issues regarding the sale of your home or other property, as well as the allocation of debts, will be determined later in your case.
Most of the time, family law cases in the temporary orders phase will be settled in mediation. Mediation is a process where you and your attorney, your spouse and their attorney and an independent attorney will come together to attempt to settle and negotiate your case. You will typically go to the mediator’s office and that attorney will put you in one room and your spouse in another (with your lawyers). The mediator will then bounce back and forth in between your rooms in hopes of reaching a settlement.
If a settlement is reached, the mediator will draft a document known as a Mediated Settlement Agreement (MSA). That MSA will be the basis from which the temporary orders in your case will be drafted. One of your attorneys will be charged with the responsibility to draft the temporary orders based on the language contained in the MSA. Both attorneys will typically look over the final draft and decide whether or not it fairly reflects the MSA. Once both sides are satisfied it will be signed and sent to the judge for their signature.
If no settlement, then a temporary orders hearing occurs
Tomorrow’s blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan will center around Temporary Orders. This is a full-fledged hearing that allows you and your opposing party to submit evidence to a judge if a settlement cannot be reached in mediation. It is called a hearing but in reality, it is a mini-trial. A person who walks into the courtroom could not distinguish your hearing from a trial, anyway. If you are interested in what your temporary orders hearing could look like, then please head back here tomorrow.
Questions about family law cases in Texas? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
The attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan are honored to be able to serve the community that we work and live in. For us, learning about you and your needs is the basis for developing a strong attorney-client relationship. We hope that you have learned something from our blog post today and always encourage questions and suggestions about the topics we discuss here.
If you have any questions or need clarification on anything you read today please do not hesitate to contact our office. We offer free of charge consultations here in our office six days a week. These consultations are a great opportunity for you to learn more about your case and to have your questions answered in a comfortable environment. We look forward to meeting with you and serving your needs along with those of your family.