You’ve just been served with divorce papers. Understanding what to do next will help you feel more in control of the situation and more prepared for what’s ahead. Below, we’ve some provided some advice and next steps.
Don’t Do Anything That Might Hurt Your Case
Receiving divorce papers is a highly stressful situation. You may be feeling many emotions, but it’s important that you don’t let them get the best of you. Lashing out at your spouse, first of all, can negatively impact your legal case and may make things more difficult for you in the future because the court may look upon this behavior unfavorably. It’s also very important that you do not attempt to withdraw from any joint accounts, liquidate assets, or try to hide assets. Pursuant to Rule 411, also known as the Automatic Restraining Order, parties to a Massachusetts divorce are prohibited from liquidating, transferring or otherwise disposing of marital assets while the case is pending. For the full rule, see here.
Don’t Ignore the Request
If you are served with divorce papers, it is very important that you don’t ignore them. The longer you wait to address legal issues, the more you reduce your options for success in court. You want to give yourself the best opportunity to vouch for yourself, your assets, and your children.
Speak with an Attorney
Speak with an attorney within a week of receiving your divorce papers—the sooner, the better. An attorney will be able to inform you about the divorce process and give advice about how best to proceed. If you hire an attorney, they can also keep track of deadlines, mediate conversations, and help build your case. If you have children, an attorney can provide advice regarding important issues such as child custody and visitation.
When choosing an attorney, spend time evaluating which attorney will fit your budget, needs, and goals. The attorney you choose should be someone that you are confident will advocate for you and someone you feel comfortable talking to.
|Note: You should expect to pay a fee for your consultation with a divorce attorney. Unlike in other fields of law, divorce attorneys do usually charge for their initial consultations.|
Pro Tip: Read reviews and speak to friends before committing to your first consultation.
Attorneys are expensive, and not everyone can afford them. If you can’t afford an attorney, consider:
- Limited Assistance Representation (see here). With limited assistance representation, you can keep costs low by hiring an attorney for limited parts of your case, such as drafting court documents or representing you in a court appearance. Just remember that the attorney will still need to prepare for that appearance in advance — so don’t wait until the last minute!
- Representing yourself “pro se.” The Massachusetts Probate and Family Court has resources for pro se litigants here. Some courts also have a “Lawyer for a Day” program that provides advice on a first-come, first-serve basis certain days of the week.
- If you are a survivor of domestic violence, you may be eligible for free legal assistance through legal aid (masslegalhelp.org) or the Women’s Bar Foundation (www.wbawbf.org).
Pay Attention to Dates
Whether it’s a deadline for filing a response or a date to appear in court, dates are important to pay attention to. Time is of the essence in a divorce proceeding. The sooner you know what your rights and responsibilities are, the sooner you will know if you have to make a strategic legal move.
An attorney can assist you with drafting and submitting responsive papers in the appropriate time frame. If you would like to be represented by an attorney, it’s critical to reach out to them before any deadlines, so they can properly respond and represent you.
If there are no dates on your divorce papers, speak to an attorney so that they can evaluate how to move forward.
After responding to the divorce papers, begin gathering documentation relevant to your case. This includes the required financial disclosures in every contested divorce case in Massachusetts, otherwise known as Rule 410 Disclosures:
- Federal and state tax returns for the past three years.
- The four most recent paystubs.
- Documentation relating to the cost and nature of available health insurance coverage.
- Bank, brokerage, retirement, and other account statements for the past 3 years.
- Copies of any loan or mortgage applications made within the last 3 years.
- Copies of any financial statement and/or statement of assets and liabilities prepared within the last 3 years.
If you own your own business, it’s a good idea to get your profit and loss statements in order as well.