Answering a Divorce Petition
The spouse served with the divorce or dissolution of marriage petition is the "respondent" or "defendant" in the divorce case. They must answer or respond to the petition within a specific time. This is usually about three weeks. You will need to pay a filing fee with your response. If you cannot pay, ask your family court clerk if a fee waiver form is available.
It might help to think of the divorce process as a lawsuit. When served with a divorce petition, you are being sued. You must respond to the claims in the petition on time. If you don't, you could lose your right to argue your position on property division, child support, parenting time, and child custody. The family court judge could grant your divorce by default judgment if you do not respond.
What Does the Answer Contain?
Answering a divorce petition shows you received the dissolution petition and divorce forms. The respondent's answers state their position on the filing spouse's statements in the divorce petition. You will either state agreement or disagreement with each claim in the petition. This may include information about the spouses and marriage. The petition may request child custody, property division, alimony, spousal support, or spousal maintenance. You may have to pay a filing fee.
Your answer may also contain a counterpetition for dissolution of marriage. A counterpetition states that you also want a divorce but have different reasons and requests than your spouse.
How to Answer
In many states, the respondent can answer the statements contained in the petition on a pre-printed court form by checking boxes labeled "admitted" or "denied." You will fill in these answers in the sections numbered to correspond with the statements or demands made in the petition. These pre-printed answer forms also provide space for explanation and the respondent's needs. You may be able to make certain disclosures about marital property and if domestic violence restraining orders are in place. Not all courts provide such forms. See if your state has a self-help center containing these forms on FindLaw's State Divorce Form page.
For example, in Paragraph 3 of the petition, suppose the filing spouse says they should have sole physical custody of the couple's minor children. If you, the respondent, feel you should have joint custody, you would clarify that position in your answer. If available in your jurisdiction, this can be done on a pre-printed answer form by checking a box marked "denied" after a pre-printed language such as "the allegations in Paragraph 3 are admitted or denied." The respondent would then be able to support this with a brief statement and make their custody demand in the space provided on the form.
However, the answer to the petition is not the place to argue specific factual or legal points. It is where you declare what you agree and disagree with in your spouse's petition. If you are in total agreement with your spouse, you may be able to have an uncontested divorce, which the court will grant more quickly as there is nothing to argue over.
Keep in mind the court may need to give temporary orders before the final hearing. The court order will establish child custody, a child support order, temporary alimony, or spousal support while the divorce court case is ongoing.
Suppose there are long waiting periods needed before your divorce can proceed and finalize. In that case, you may consider filing for a legal separation. This can establish custody and support for minor children, a parenting plan, alimony or spousal support, and some marital property division while the court case is in process. If you are unsure what is best for you, contact an experienced divorce lawyer for legal advice.
Failure to Answer — Default
Suppose the divorce petition is correctly served on the respondent, but they don't answer. The court will likely assume that the respondent agrees to the divorce on the terms the filing spouse set out and may enter a "default" judgment in the case. This means that by failing to answer the divorce petition, the respondent's right to argue any part of the divorce has ended.
Suppose a default court order is entered against a spouse who failed to answer a divorce petition. They may be able to ask the court to remove or "set aside" the default judgment so that the divorce can be contested. The respondent will need to show legal reasons that justify such a move.
Sample Forms: Answers to Petition for Divorce/Dissolution
The state-specific samples below should give you an idea of what an answer to a petition for divorce/dissolution looks like and the information these documents usually contain:
- California: Response–Marriage/Domestic Partnership (CA Courts)
- Washington: Response to Petition (Domestic Relations) (WA Courts)
- West Virginia: Answer to Divorce Petition (WV Supreme Court of Appeals)
Get Professional Legal Help With Answering a Divorce Petition
Let's face it. Divorces can get messy. You'll want to understand your rights and obligations if you've been served with a divorce petition. You'll need to answer the divorce petition quickly. Take the stress off yourself and have a qualified divorce lawyer give you legal advice and e-file your response. Start today by finding an experienced family law attorney near you.
Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?
- You may not need an attorney for a simple divorce with uncontested issues
- Legal advice is critical to protect your interests in a contested divorce
- Divorce lawyers can help secure fair custody/visitation, support, and property division
An attorney is a skilled advocate during negotiations and court proceedings. Many attorneys offer free consultations.
Don't Forget About Estate Planning
Divorce is an ideal time to review your beneficiary designations on life insurance, bank accounts, and retirement accounts. You need to change your estate planning forms to reflect any new choices about your personal representative and beneficiaries. You can change your power of attorney if you named your ex-spouse as your agent. Also, change your health care directive to remove them from making your health care decisions.