You’ve just received paperwork that’s been filed related to a divorce or a custody matter. What do you do now?
Formal Service of Court Documents by Process Server
First, be aware that there is a significant distinction between being “served” vs informally receiving court documents as this is a very, very important legal distinction.
Being “served” by legal definition means that a process server, constable, a law enforcement official, or an individual licensed as a process server in the state of Texas has located you, identified you, and personally delivered to you the court documents. At that moment “you’ve been served” as they say.
Informal Receipt of Court Documents
That is a very different legal distinction than say if someone’s hired an attorney, have started the legal process (i.e., filed a petition for divorce with the court), and your spouse’s attorney emails you the paperwork or sends it to you in the mail with a letter informing you that the Attorney has been retained and provides you a copy of what’s been filed with the Court. Or, also common is where your spouse leaves a copy of the documents for you somewhere or emails you a copy of the documents.
This, on the other hand, is not by legal definition what we would call “service”. Instead, informally receiving court documents in this manner simply means that you have been apprised of the court filing and that you have simply “received” or “come into possession” of the court filing information, not that you have been “served”. Make sense?
Distinguishing Being “Served” and Informally Receiving A Copy of Court Documents
The major distinction is when you have been “served” formally which triggers legal requirements that you have a limited period — even a limited number of days — to respond to the court filing.
If you have been formally served, the general rule is that you have until the “Monday following the expiration of 20 days” from the date of the formal service received by you to file some kind of reply or what is known as an “answer” with the Court on your behalf. This will all be clearly set forth in the court paperwork known as the “citation”.
This means you need to hire an attorney or, representing yourself, you have to file a response and file an answer and reply to that which has been filed within the courts. Otherwise, there is a risk that you can be defaulted — meaning an order from the court can be issued against you without your input or hearing your own evidence you feel is necessary for the court to hear and consider on your own behalf – depending on what kind of lawsuit and what the circumstances are.
If you have instead only informally received this information, meaning your spouse has emailed it to you or left it on the kitchen table, or an attorney has sent a letter or emailed it to you, then you do not have the same obligation to file an answer or a reply with the Court and you have plenty of time to research and consult with an attorney and you are most likely not at risk of being defaulted.
Of course, there are exceptions so if you aware of a divorce or custody matter being filed where you are involved, you should immediately seek counsel with a professional family law attorney.
Be Aware of the Standing Orders for Your County
The next steps to be taken depend on which of the counties that we practice in your legal matter has been filed whether Williamson County, Hays County, Bastrop County, or Travis County.
All these Counties have what are known as “standing orders”.
And it is very important to understand right away what those standing orders say and how they apply to your situation specifically because these standing orders apply in almost every case that is filed, whether an original divorce matter, custody suit, or a modification of a prior custody matter including whether or not the matter is a divorce that involves kids or does not involve kids and is property only.
If you want more information, I have detailed information on the standing orders for each of these counties on our website here.
The standing orders in each county are slightly different, in substance are largely the same and impose rules between parents and their kids, what you can do with your money, how you control your accounts, how you can control and dispose of your assets, and what you can spend money on, what you can incur debt for.
Don’t Make Any Knee Jerk Decisions
If you have been served or have informally been made aware of the filing of a divorce or custody matter, it is very important that you not make any kind of major knee-jerk decision such as immediately canceling your spouse’s credit card, removing your spouse’s access to their account or joint account, or taking out a loan on your 401(k) and don’t withdraw or enroll your children from the school or child care in which they are enrolled — all without first consulting an experienced family law attorney.
Doing so can potentially lead to you being held in “contempt” by the Court for violating the standing orders, which is the family law equivalent of you being required to pay sanctions, attorneys fees, or even being sentenced to jail.
These courts and family law generally want to see the status quo protected, which is what the standing orders are largely designed to do. Of course, there are situations in which you may need to take a course of action that contradicts the standing orders and there may be specific reasons for doing so, but this requires agreement between the parties or a hearing where the Court gives approval through a court order. There are specific strategy reasons why an attorney might advise you to take some of those steps, but only after careful consideration and a detailed consultation with an experienced family law attorney.
So, don’t make knee-jerk reactions. Don’t engage emotionally and make some kind of a real significant life change for you and your family.
Hire An Experienced Family Law Attorney
Last, if you are able, immediately consult with and retain an experienced family law attorney.
I would suggest you start with Attorneys who are “board certified in Family Law” and combine that with those who are listed on the Texas Monthly Super Lawyers list as is our principal family law attorney, James “Jimmy” Evans.
Be wary of a “google search” and seeing who are the “top family law attorneys” as these are often marketing gimmicks that law firms pay significant marketing dollars to be “at the top page” for google. Read reviews and read them across platforms, such as Google Reviews , Lawyers.com and Avvo.com
The experienced family law Attorneys at the Evans Family Law Group have significant experience in all these areas and can give you carefully considered guidance. Contact our experienced family law attorneys at the Evans Family Law Group right away.