Help! Ive just been served!

Getting served divorce papers must be right up there with the worst day of your life.  The papers are very official looking and in your shock completely incomprehensible. The cover is a Summons that extols you to respond within a certain number of days.  What to do?

Over the years I have many experiences with these shell shocked people.  What amazes me is how many of them claimed they didn't see it coming.  How do you not know your spouse has been meeting with a lawyer and is planning to divorce you.  Didn't you have any conversation about this?

The worst experience ever happened in California.  Henry came to my office with the requisite official papers but he also had a letter from an attorney.  No, not the letter from his wife's attorney but from an attorney who was soliciting his business.  Henry did not know his wife had filed for divorce until he got a letter from an attorney informing him his wife had filed for divorce and said lawyer would be happy to help him.  This lawyer was combing the public records and sending solicitation letters to soon-to-be Respondents in divorce actions.  Henry hired me rather than the ambulance chaser.  When I called the wife's attorney he was even more appalled at the solicitation.   He and the wife were not yet ready to tell Harold about the divorce.  Not a good start for the case.

Being served has a very technical legal definition.  It means that a process server came to your home or employment and left papers.  Often, however, people merely received papers in the mail, by e mail or even handed to them by their spouse.  Often this is accompanied by a document Acknowledgment or Receipt.   I rarely use a process server but there are times where it is necessary.  Here are some points for either method:

NOTE:  The following are only general guidelines and your case may be different.  Also note that this information is intended for WASHINGTON STATE cases only. 

Were you served by a process server?  Or, Is a process server trying to serve you?

  • First of all, dont try to evade service.  Process servers are pretty diligent and will find you and you have only made things more expensive and difficult.  This is not the time to be evasive.
  • The process server may have left the papers with someone else at your house.  This is probably still good service.
  • You do not have to sign for the papers.  Even though you through them on the ground, you have been served.
  • Dont leave abusive messages for your spouse.  Restraining orders will usually follow.
  • Dont file anything with the court even though the Summons only gave you 20 days.  you want to do this one correctly.
  • Find a lawyer you resonate with.  Review some web sites of the individual lawyer, not the lawyer listing services.  Most of us try to express our philosophy and point of view on web sites.  Make a phone call or visit in person for a face-to-face.  Make a decision.  Your new lawyer will file a response for you and then you can plan the next steps.
  • Using a process server generally is a more aggressive approach.  You really do need to talk to a lawyer.

Did you receive papers in the mail,  e mail or in person with an Acknowledgment or Receipt?

  • The acknowledgment merely asks you to acknowledge that you received the papers, not that you are agreeing to anything.  Its OK to acknowledge receipt.
  • You can give the papers to your lawyer who can accept service on your behalf.  Probably the preferred route
  • Again, pay attention to the time requirements on the Summons.  You really do need to respond by filing a response with the court
  • While this is a more amicable approach, you must take these papers seriously.  If you do not acknowledge receipt a process server will come knocking and you will be expected to pay for it.

Is there a court hearing scheduled on this case?  For what purpose?

  • This means it is a particularly aggresive case.  You must take action immediately.
  • Often clients overlook this because it comes in such a thick package.  Your lawyer needs time to respond to this.  Dont wait until the day before the hearing to talk to a lawyer.
  • Dont panic.  Often a lawyer can get a brief continuance for the hearing and sometimes can negotiate it away entirely.
  • Not attending the hearing or attending unprepared is a big mistake.

Are there temporary restraining orders?

  • You must pay attention to these.  This is serious business
  • If they are financial restraining orders just make sure you dont close accounts, cancel insurance, etc.  Follow instructions.
  • If they are restraints on personal conduct they really mean it.  DO NOT CONTACT your spouse in any manner.  Do not have a friend or relative do so.  This could result in severe consequences, even jail.
  • Dont panic.  Your lawyer may be able to negotiate these away or find a less harsh solution.
  • Dont try to handle this yourself.
  • NOTE FOR WASHINGTON STATE RESIDENTS:  Some counties (Snohomish for one) have automatic financial restraints.   These are automatic and not something your spouse requested.  It is not necessarily overly aggressive.  The court requires it.

Papers you were probably served.

  • Summons and Complaint
  • Petition
  • Blank Response

you may have also received:

  • Acknowledgment or Receipt
  • Automatic Financial Restraining Orders
  • Blank Response
  • Case Schedule
  • Notice of required parenting class and registration information

If you received the following, see a lawyer immediately:

  • Temporary Restraining Orders for Personal Conduct
  • Notice of Hearing for temporary orders
  • Proposed Temporary Orders

Conclusion If you have been served divorce papers

  • Dont panic
  • Talk to a lawyer right away
  • Be able to tell your lawyer which of the above papers you were served