A divorce officially starts with the service of the Summons and Petition. The Summons is a very short document (2-3 pages) which notifies the other party (the Respondent) that a divorce lawsuit has been started. The Summons identifies any real estate owned by the party, provides notice of parent education requirements, encourages alternative dispute resolution, and provides temporary restraining provisions. Once the divorce has been started, neither party is to harass the other, change insurance coverage or beneficiaries, or dispose of marital assets. The petition lays out the facts of the case according to the first party (the Petitioner). These facts include information as to the parties’, their children, and their assets, debts, and incomes, as well as certain facts that are required by the court (i.e what county the parties live in, whether anyone is a member of the military, if an Order for Protection exists). The Petition also includes a “Prayer for Relief” – what the Petitioner is requesting from the court (i.e. the dissolution of marriage, provisions related to child custody and support, division of assets and debt).
The Summons and Petition must be personally served on the Respondent for the divorce process to officially start. This can happen by someone over the age of 18 (but not the Petitioner) personally handing the documents to the Respondent and then signing an Affidavit of Service in front of a notary. Personal service can also happen with the Respondent signing an Admission of Service in front of a notary. Once the divorce has officially started, the Respondent will have 30 days to prepare a formal Answer and Counterpetition (although in many cases this timeline is extended to allow the parties time to negotiate a settlement).
Now every attorney has a different approach to starting the divorce process. At least ever month I speak to someone who has just been served divorce papers, and the situation is typically this:
Some random third party has shown up at their home or work place to hand them a blank envelope containing only the Summons and Petition. They read the documents, not really knowing what they are or what they are supposed to do. They get to the Prayer for Relief at the end of the Petition and freak out – the Petitioner is asking for anything and everything and just seems to be crazy (The Petitioner earns more than the Respondent but is asking for spousal maintenance; The parties have been separated for several months during which time the Petitioner has hardly expressed an interest in the children but is now asking for sole legal, sole physical custody and child support; The Petitioner is asking for all of the property and requesting that the Respondent take all of the debt).
The Respondent is now scared and angry, does not trust the Petitioner or the Petitioner’s attorney, and is ready to fight.
This is a very bad way to start a divorce – there is no trust or desire to work towards a resolution. Now maybe there are some cases which require a tougher approach, but in most cases, I find that a softer approach will result in a quicker (and cheaper) resolution with less conflict for the family. I tend to work with my client to ask for reasonable relief in the Prayer for Relief (what my client really wants and what we reasonably believe will be the final result). I always serve papers with a cover letter explaining what the papers are. In many cases, I have worked with my client to prepare a proposed Marital Termination Agreement to be included with the initial papers. If my client and I believe the Respondent is likely to sign an Admission of Service, and there is no reason the divorce needs to be started immediately, I will mail the documents, along with an Admission of Service to the Respondent, and the cover letter will explain that I need the Respondent to complete the Admission of Service and return it to me within a certain time frame, otherwise I will need to have the documents personally served upon Respondent. In most cases, the Respondent will return the Admission of Service.
The Respondent may consult with or hire an attorney, but instead of focusing on how to fight the Petitioner, guessing what the Petitioner may be asking for, and discussing all the possible issues, the Respondent and the attorney can review the proposed agreement and discuss settlement options. Right away we can determine what the parties agree to and what areas we need to work on, tailoring the case for the situation. How you start your divorce can have a big impact on how long your divorce process will be and how much time and money you spend fighting.