If your spouse files for divorce, you will receive a copy of the divorce papers within a few days. They will contain instructions for your response, and a date by which you should respond.
Failing to respond by that date would be a big mistake!
In most places, that means you give up your right to have a say, and what your spouse says goes. You may be able to file for an extension if you need more time, but your response may not take a long time to prepare. You will have at least a few weeks; in some US states you have up to 90 days.
In some places, the time allowed for your response begins when the papers are served. Be sure you know when your response is due, and file it before then!
What do I need to submit as my response to the divorce petition?
The form of the response is similar to the document filed by the other party, and also often contains complaints or accusations against the party who filed first. You will want to read what the other party filed very carefully, and clearly point out in your response any false information in what the other party said.
You should include basic information that you think is important; if you leave something out, you may not be able to talk about it later. For example, if your spouse filed a divorce petition saying that neither party should receive financial support from the other, and if you don’t say anything about that in your response, you may be giving up your right to ask for alimony (“spousal maintenance”) or child support later.
So be sure to briefly mention the things you think are important, but also be careful not to make any accusations you can’t back up with evidence. Making a lot of accusations might make you look unreasonable, and in some places it is against the law to make false accusation on official papers. Your response, like your spouse’s petition, is a sworn document, so making any false statements can have serious consequences.
Do I need a lawyer?
This is a good time to consider whether you should have a lawyer.
You can probably manage your divorce without a lawyer if your spouse doesn’t have one; and if there is not a lot of money involved; and if you don’t have kids or if you agree about custody.
You should probably get a lawyer if your spouse has one; or if there is a lot of money at stake; or if you have kids with the other party, and you both don’t agree how custody should be handled.
These matters are usually handled by a “family law” attorney. But if your spouse has included any criminal accusations in his petition, you might want to also consult a criminal defense attorney about those issues.
What should I tell my attorney?
This is also a good time to think carefully about what your objectives are, and to communicate them clearly to your attorney. If your attorney doesn't accept your objectives and give you a good plan - but not a guarantee - to achieve them, then you may not be compatible.
Some types of objectives to consider include:
* Custody. If you have minor children, think carefully about what you believe would be best for them. Take into account "legal custody" - who will make decisions about medical, educational, and religious matters - and "residential" custody - where will the kids live most of the time.
Examples of a custody objective might be "I think we can share legal custody but I should have primary residential custody, with my ex having the kids two nights every other weekend" or "I should have full legal custody but we can have 50/50 residential custody til the kids are ready for school, and then I should have them every weeknight and my ex every weekend night."
* Financial - child support, alimony ("spousal maintenance") and division of assets. Most US states have guidelines as to who should pay how much child support and alimony, and also guidelines for the division of assets. Some things are negotiable within reason. You might tell your attorney, "I want to keep the house but I would be willing to give her half the equity in it if I can have half the value of her 401k." or "I need to get at least $500 a month in alimony for at least four years so I can finish my degree." for example.
* Timing. We all want the divorce to be over soon, but setting an aggressive goal to have it over too quickly might weaken your negotiating position; you might end up giving too much on your other objectives in order to settle quickly. One way to deal with this is to tell your attorney to file immediately for a trial date, and get it set as soon as possible - probably within a few months. That way, you have an end date to the process, and both sides will have a motivation to come to an agreement soon, to avoid the risk and cost of a trial.
Here is an article with more details about how this process works in the US:
I am not an attorney, and I can't give legal advice. The information here is based on my own experience going through a divorce in one US state, and on what I have read and learned from others who have been through a divorce with a BPD sufferer.