I’ve Been Served With Papers. What should I do?
So you’ve been served with papers. Whether a divorce, custody suit, modification, or enforcement, this can be a stressful event. Let’s talk about what to do and what not to do immediately after being served.
1. Stay calm. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.
Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay. Stay calm. Don’t contact the other party person to lambast them about the lawsuit. Don’t take any sort of rash action or retaliate in any manner whatsoever.
2. Read the papers carefully.
Yes, there’s going to be a lot of legal language. It can be hard to understand, but it’s also not written in Greek. There are things you will be able to understand. In particular, look for the following:
Pleadings. If you have been served with papers, you are typically going to be looking at pleadings. These are requests the other party has made to the court. Eventually, they will be asking the court to issue orders granting these requests, but unless you see a temporary court order granting one or more of these requests, nothing is in place yet.
Court Orders. A court order will be signed by a judge. If it’s not signed by a judge, it’s not a court order, it’s just a pleading. Many people think that because a request has been made in a pleading, it means there is now a rule or order in place. This is not the case. You are not under a court order unless there is a court order.
The above being said, if there is a court order, which is a document specifically ordering you to do or not do certain things, and signed by one or more judges, make sure you follow it. In many counties, there will always be a uniform standing order that applies to both parties, which we will address next.
Standing Orders. A standing order is a type of court order that applies to all family law or other specific types of suits in certain counties. These standing orders will have a lot of rules for both parties. These rules immediately go into effect when the suit is filed. Don’t take these personally. They apply to every lawsuit, not just yours. The other party did not request the standing order and it goes into place automatically. That said, it is a court order so as stated above, make sure you follow it.
Temporary Restraining Orders. This is an order signed by a judge that tells you not to do certain things. A temporary restraining order only lasts for a very short period of time (typically 14 days). There will be a hearing set up at the end of this short time period to decide whether the things ordered in the temporary restraining order should extend beyond that short period of time.
You will always want to see a lawyer quickly if you have been served with papers, but if you have been served with a temporary restraining order, it becomes even more important that you see a lawyer immediately.
Protective Orders. Protective orders can be issued when there is an accusation of family violence or behavior that can be seen as stalking. If you have been served with a protective order, contract a lawyer immediately. Protective orders are the strongest orders under the law. Even the smallest violation of any provision of the protective order will be considered a felony and will land you in jail. If you’ve been served with a protective order it is absolutely imperative that you not contact any of the people protected under the order – no texts, phone calls, etc. – or go anywhere near them.
If you’ve just been served with a protective order, again as stated above, don’t panic. Typically what you are looking at will be a temporary protective order with a hearing set. The court has not heard your side of the story, and as long as you act quickly you will have time to put together a defense and present that defense at the hearing.
3. Contact a lawyer.
Consult with a lawyer a soon as possible after you’ve been served with papers. Do your research. You will find many good articles online about how to find a good lawyer. But don’t take so long in your research that you allow too much time to pass. Whenever you are served with any lawsuit, you should see a lawyer within the next week. If you have been served with a temporary restraining order or protective order, you should see a lawyer immediately.
4. File an answer.
After being served with papers you should hire a lawyer to file an answer for you. But in any case, your answer must be filed before 10:00 a.m. the Monday following 20 days from the date you are served. Otherwise, the case may proceed without your input and the other party can receive “default” temporary or permanent orders based on their requests.
While not recommended, it is possible for you to file an answer without a lawyer after being served with papers. Forms are available at www.TexasLawHelp.org.
5. File a counter-petition.
If you’ve hired or consulted with a lawyer, they can advise you as to whether you should file a counter-petition. Often when you have been served with papers, you may have your own set of requests for the court. A counter-petition is a document that outlines your requests and iis often filed along with the answer.
6. Waiver of Service
Sometimes you will not be formally served with papers in a lawsuit. Your spouse may hand you the petition along with a “Waiver of Service”, or a lawyer may write you an email or letter attaching a waiver of service. By signing a waiver of service you are saying that you are waiving your right to be served with the initial pleadings in the case.
You will want to speak to a lawyer before signing a waiver of service. Some waivers of service say that you don’t want to be notified of any future settings or court actions and that the lawsuit can proceed without you. These should never be signed. Some waivers of service reserve the right to be notified of all settings and retain your right to be involved in your case. A lawyer can help you understand which category your waiver falls under.
Often, your lawyer will go ahead and file an answer on your behalf, which negates the need to sign a waiver of service altogether.
Hopefully this article has helped you understand what to do in the event you’ve been served with papers. If you’ve been served feel free to contact our law firm to set up a consultation with one of our attorneys to discuss the documents you’ve been served with.