Step Three: File and serve the forms

Go back to the information sheet that came with your court forms packet. Read it carefully. It tells you how to serve and file your forms.

Divorce Information Sheet
Parental Rights and Responsibilities Information Sheet
(for unmarried parents)

What if I am the one who was served with the papers?

The spouse who files and serves the papers is the "Plaintiff". The spouse who receives the papers is the "Defendant". There is no advantage to being the spouse that serves the paperwork first.

The court papers you receive may include an "Acknowledgment of Receipt" form. This form is used to simplify and expedite the "service" process.  By signing and returning the form, you are only agreeing that you got the divorce papers. You are not agreeing to everything in the Plaintiff's Complaint. You will have the chance to explain where you stand on issues at mediation, and any formal hearings you may have.

Defendants need to complete and file an Entry of Appearance form. On this form, be sure to include your correct address. Then the court will know where to send you all important notices and court dates. "File" by mailing or hand-delivering to the court. Send a copy of this, and all your court filings (except for your social security number disclosure form), to the Plaintiff. Keep a copy for your own file.

Defendants also need to complete and file an Answer. You have 20 days to do this, starting from the day you were "served". The divorce form includes a Counterclaim. This Counterclaim is your request for a divorce. If you do not file a Counterclaim and the Plaintiff decides to dismiss the case or does not show up at the final hearing, the court will dismiss your case. Then you would have to file a new complaint, starting all over again in order to get divorced. By including a Counterclaim with your Answer, you are ensuring that your case will move forward even if the Plaintiff decides to dismiss the complaint or does not show up.

Read on. The rest of this information applies to both parents. Within two or three weeks of getting the Plaintiff's Complaint, the court will send both of you a scheduling notice for a Case Management Conference.

More Tips

  • You can avoid paying a "service fee" if the other parent signs the acknowledgement of service form. You can give the papers to the other parent by hand or regular mail. If the other parent does not agree to this, you will have to pay for "service." Learn your options by reading the Information Sheet (see above). 
  • If you try certified mail service and the defendant does not sign the green postal card, this means either that they refused to sign or that the mail was undeliverable.
    • If the defendant refused to sign, you can send the papers by regular mail, then file the green card and affidavit stating how you served the papers and why with the court clerk.
    • If the green card comes back saying the mail was undeliverable, then you must try one of the other service methods. See below.
  • If you think that one of the two mail methods will work, you can serve copies of your papers before you file the originals with the court. (When you use this "serve first" method, you have 20 days to file your papers with the court after serving them on the other parent otherwise the court will dismiss your case. If you still want to move forward with your divorce at that point, then you’ll have to start the process, and the paperwork, over again.)
  • If the mail methods don't work because the defendant is avoiding service, you can use the Service by Sheriff method. This costs more.
    • If you can't afford the fee, you can file your papers with the court first, along with your fee waiver application.
    • Explain in your application why you need to use Service by Sheriff.
    • If the court approves your application, the court will pay for the cost of Sheriff Service.
    • When you use this "file first" method, you have 90 days to serve after filing.
  • You may not be able to find the other party. If you have made all reasonable efforts but still cannot find the defendant, the court may let you do "Service by Alternative Means."
    • Get the court's instruction sheet here.
    • Follow the instructions. You may ask for a fee waiver if you cannot afford the cost.
    • You can get all the forms you need (listed on the instruction sheet) from the Court Clerk, or online from the Court's website
    • This "alternative means" service can be complicated. We recommend that you get help from a lawyer if you can afford it. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you can speak with a volunteer advocate at your local Courthouse  Assistance Project, if one exists in your local court. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Can I sell or get rid of property?

A. The court has ordered both of your to preserve all marital property while your case is pending. This means that you cannot give away, sell, or destroy any property that your spouse may have an interest in. For example, you can't sell the family car. One parent cannot cancel the other parent's or children's health insurance. These orders are included in the Summons and Preliminary Injunction form (see “Notice to Both Parties” on page 2) that the Plaintiff "served" on the Defendant. These orders apply to both of you. To avoid serious penalties, you need permission from the court to do any of these things. We advise you to talk to a lawyer before doing anything that may violate this order.

Q. What happens if I don't go to a court meeting or hearing?

A. It is important that you show up for all court dates. Be on time and be prepared. If you don't go, you can be "defaulted," which means that the court gives the other party what they want because you didn't show up. The court can also charge you for costs, such as court fees or the other party's attorney fees.

Q. What if I move or change phone numbers while my court case is pending?

A. Notify the court in writing right away if your mailing address or telephone number changes. The court clerk needs to be able to find you. Otherwise, you may not get court notices, causing you to miss important court dates. You can use this court form to notify the court of changes.