I Just Got Served, Now What?
I just got served with paperwork. What should I do?
If you just got served with paperwork, then you are under a deadline to file a response with the court. In these situations, it helps to take the lawsuit seriously and act quickly, so that if you do need to hire counsel you have time to research and interview lawyers. There are two things to consider whenever you are served with paperwork in any lawsuit:
What deadline(s) do I need to know, so I can file responsive pleadings in time and not lose ground in court? and...
What orders, if any, am I now required to follow?
What if I am required to appear in court the next day or very soon?
If you are served with paperwork and required to appear at a hearing the next day, or within a few days, there are several options. One option is to hire a lawyer who can file an Answer and a Motion for Continuance. It is important to file an Answer, so that if for some reason you are not able to appear the opposing party cannot take a default judgment against you. (Although an Answer alone may not prevent that from happening). A Motion for Continuance can be just as crucial, especially if you have not had time to gather evidence, witnesses, and prepare your case. Your lawyer can go to court on the date of the hearing and ask that you be given more time to prepare. Keep in mind that just because a continuance is requested, it is not always granted. If you choose not to hire a lawyer, you may ask for a continuance yourself, and depending on the facts, a judge may grant your request. However, it can be risky, because judges will not always grant continuances. In certain emergency situations, a judge cannot reset a case, but must hear the issues on the date of the hearing. For example, in protective order situations, the order for protection goes into effect immediately after the judge signs it, usually before the other party even has a day in court. In this scenario, a full-blown hearing is held after the protective order has been signed by the judge. In many protective order situations, a hearing is required within 14 days of the date the judge signs the order, and it can only be extended and reset once.
I just got served. It looks like the judge already signed an order that affects me, what can I do?
There may be a situation when you are served with paperwork and you find out that a judge has already signed an order that affects you, when you haven't even had a day in court. What do you do in those situations? The most important thing to do is keep calm and contact a lawyer to see if they can help you make sense of the process and pleadings. They can help determine how serious the order and allegations are, and whether or not you have a chance for success when you do get your day in court. Additionally, just because you are served with paperwork, does not mean that the other side is in the right. Proper service must be proven to the court, and that can depend on a lot of factors. Were you served correctly by a private process server, sheriff, or constable? Did they allow you enough time under the law in which to reply to the lawsuit? Also, keep in mind that just because a judge signs an order based on an affidavit or allegations, it does not mean that the judge believes it to be 100% true. In family law, judges have to err on the side of caution. What this means is that they may sign an order knowing that it will go into effect for the time being, and that the truth will get hashed out at a full-blown hearing a few weeks down the road. They oftentimes make decisions with only limited facts, knowing that it is only temporary and you will get your day court. Although these situations can be extremely frustrating, it can help to keep the perspective that in most lawsuits, the system is set up so that each party gets to tell their side of the story and have their day in court.
I just got served with a divorce petition. I had no idea this was coming. Help!
First off, if you just got served with an Original Petition for Divorce, take a moment to gather your thoughts, and when you are calm, take a look through the pleadings. (It may be helpful to review the "What are the steps for a divorce in Texas?" section under the Divorce tab of this site). Usually you will have received a packet of paperwork stapled together, which likely includes the citation for issuance of service (the document that allowed you to get served), and the actual pleadings filed in the case (the Original Petition for Divorce, etc). It is very common for people to receive divorce pleadings that are actually not very contested, but because of the legalese, they may sound contentious. Plus, keep in mind that when you are served with divorce pleadings it is hard not to take it personally, and many people feel attacked. That is normal. It can be a scary thing to start the process for a divorce. Just remember, people get divorced everyday. There is a process that all cases will follow, and with time and some help, you will get through it too.
In Texas, pleadings tend to be general and filled with legal terms that can sound aggressive to non-lawyers, so it is probably best to call or contact an attorney who can offer insight. Also, there may be deadlines that you need to be aware of, or other orders attached to the petition that you are bound by, so it is important to figure that out right away. There may be an Order to Appear and Show Cause, a Temporary Restraining Order, a Motion for a Hearing on Temporary Orders, and/or a Standing Order attached or included in the divorce petition itself. If you live in a county where a Standing Order is in effect upon service of the pleading, you and your spouse may now be bound by the terms of that order. If you are in Travis County for example, the Travis County Standing Order Regarding Children Property and the Parties goes into immediate effect upon the filing of a divorce, or a lawsuit involving the parent-child relationship. This is an order that both parties are bound by. It includes provisions that prevent both parties from disturbing the peace of the children, destroying or removing property or funds, and removing the children from the State of Texas, to name a few. Resist the urge to run off and take action, if you have not reviewed the terms of the standing order carefully. Most standing orders allow a party to spend for reasonable and necessary living expenses as well as attorney's fees, but they typically do not allow withdrawing or hiding all of the money from shared bank accounts, closing accounts, or changing the status quo.
If you have arranged to consult with a lawyer, be sure to bring the pleadings for their review. A lawyer can tell you what the next steps should be, and help you to strategically prepare for the divorce process. A lawyer can also determine what responsive pleadings to file, including determining whether or not you should file your own Counter-Petition for Divorce. A Counter-Petition for Divorce is your version of the Original Petition for Divorce. It is the pleading where you let the court and the other side know what it is you want. A lawyer can also advise you on questions about separation, custody, division of property, and whether or not you should stay in the marital home.