What Happens After You Are Served Divorce Papers?

Even when you know it is coming, most people still respond emotionally when they are served divorce papers. This emotional response is completely normal. While it is difficult to feel and think at the same time, you should not ignore the divorce summons. 

When divorce papers are served, an important deadline is triggered. Read the summons you were served carefully. The summons will tell you how much time you have to respond to the petition. In most states, this will be between 20 and 30 days. If you miss this deadline, a divorce will be entered against you, and the court will likely give your spouse everything they ask for.

This article will outline what you should do when served with divorce papers.

What You Must Do When Served With Divorce Papers 

Most states provide several options for responding to the initial divorce petition or complaint, as it is sometimes referred to. In Missouri, where I practice, you can file an appearance, a simple one-page document. It informs the court that you wish to participate in the case as it progresses.

You can also file an answer, a document in most states that allows you to respond in writing to each issue raised in your spouse’s divorce complaint. 

Spouses typically have the right to file a counterclaim, which is essentially the same as a divorce complaint, except that the court receives it after your spouse has filed papers to initiate the litigation. In a counterclaim, you can respond to your spouse’s allegations, make your allegations, and request a divorce on your terms. 

What are the Deadlines for Responding to the Divorce?

The summon served on you will tell you the deadline to respond to the divorce complaint. This varies from state to state. Most states give you 20-30 days to file a written response. The deadline is triggered by the date the papers were served on you. 

If you can’t find the response date on the summons served on you, contact the court clerk in your county. Do this immediately. You do not want to miss the deadline. 

If you have any questions about how the divorce process works, you should talk to an experienced family law attorney who can help you understand the paperwork and when it needs to be done. 

The Next Steps to Responding to the Divorce Papers

When you file your answering documents with the court, you must serve a copy on your spouse, just as she did with her divorce papers. If your response is filed electronically, the court will forward your documents to your spouse or their attorney. Send a copy of your answer by email to your spouse’s lawyer to ensure they get it. 

Filing and serving your answer notifies both the court and your spouse that you intend to participate in the case. After you’ve done this, no further action can be taken without your knowledge. 

When the court receives your response, you will most likely receive a notice directing you and your spouse to appear before a judge for a management conference. The judge will want to know if you can reach a settlement or if your divorce is likely to necessitate a trial. If the latter is the case, the judge will advise you on what to do next, particularly if you require court orders to stabilize your situation until the divorce is final.

What Happens if You Miss the Deadline to Respond to the Divorce?

You must act quickly if you have missed the deadline to respond to the summons. If you don’t, a default judgment can be entered against you. The court will have a hearing without you if you do not respond. After the hearing, the court will enter a divorce decree or order. If you default, the court will give your spouse everything they ask for in the divorce. 

If you have missed the deadline, you have a couple of options. One option is to call the county clerk and ask that the matter be set for a hearing and then show up and ask the court to give you time to respond. The second option is to hire an attorney. The attorney will file a motion to extend the time for a response to be filed. These motions are routinely granted. The court will likely give additional time to respond to the divorce papers. 

Decide What to Say in your Response to the Divorce. (Answer or Counterclaim)

File a Counterclaim

Most states give you a few options for responding to the divorce petition or complaint. Even if your spouse has already filed a divorce complaint, you can file a counterclaim that serves as your request for a divorce. The counterclaim can state your divorce grounds and tell the court what you want the judge to order. 

If your spouse later changes their mind and dismisses their divorce complaint, effectively ending their request for a divorce, your counterclaim would keep the case moving forward. Your counterclaim, asking for a divorce on your terms, will keep the case going, and you can continue to proceed toward a divorce. 

File an Answer

Another option is to forgo a counterclaim and file an answer to the divorce petition. An answer is a document in which you respond to what your spouse said in their divorce papers. You can also include a list of what you want the judge to order. 

Some states allow you to file an answer and a counterclaim, responding to your spouse’s complaint while making your case. In some jurisdictions, you can also file an appearance, which is a simple statement informing the court that you want to participate in the proceedings.

How to Write Your Reply to the Divorce Papers

Some states have forms for responses, but if yours doesn’t, the format is usually easy to understand. The complaint or petition of your spouse should be written in numbered paragraphs. When writing your response, number your paragraphs the same way. 

You will file a written response to each paragraph. In your response, you will either agree or disagree with the allegations in each numbered paragraph. 

For example, in your spouse’s petition, the first paragraph might say something like this:

“1. The parties were married on July 30, 2020, in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Missouri.”

If this is correct, the first paragraph of your response would say something like this:

“1. Respondent admits the allegations contained in paragraph 1 of Petitioner’s Petition.”

If the allegation is wrong, you will deny the allegation. Say, for example, you were married on July 26, 2020, not July 30; your response would say something like this:

“1. Respondent denies the allegations contained in paragraph 1 and states that the correct date of the marriage is July 26, 2020.”  

If your spouse claims they are entitled to custody of the children because you are an unfit parent, you can say “denied” and ask the court to rule in your favor, explaining why. 

If you want to file a counterclaim, this is a more complicated legal document that may require the assistance of an attorney.

File Your Response to the Divorce Papers 

The summons you were given will tell you how long you have to file your answer and any counterclaims with the court. You must also serve your spouse with a copy of your papers. This can be done electronically. The response must be filed with the circuit clerk in the county where the petition was filed.

The rules for giving your answer to your spouse vary from state to state, so talk to your county clerk, an attorney, or someone from legal aid to find out what you should do. You must file a statement with the court attesting that you served your spouse and explain how you did so. If you don’t answer by the date given in the summons, you may be able to ask the judge for more time by filing a motion.

Consider Hiring an Attorney to Respond to a Divorce Petition

If you have been served with divorce papers, you might want to hire a family law attorney with a lot of experience. Unless your marriage is very short and there are no children, it is advisable to hire an attorney to assist you. 

Several legal issues should be handled professionally if you have substantial assets or children. You will want to protect your rights regarding dividing property, child custody and visitation, child support, insurance, and alimony. 

There are also procedural rules, which can be hard to understand unless you have an attorney to advise you. 

What to Read Next


Tim McDuffey is a practicing attorney in the State of Missouri. Tim is a licensed member of the Missouri Bar and Missouri Bar Association.

Recent Posts