You've just been served with divorce papers. Either you've been expecting this day, and there is a sense of relief, or you've been entirely blindsided and are now in complete shock. Regardless, you must pull yourself together and react, and you must do so quickly.
As upset as you may feel, and as frightening as this may be, it is important to remain calm and carefully read all of the paperwork you've just been handed. You will want to look for and focus on a few key things to decide how to respond.
What Are Your Response Deadlines?
There are two important deadlines to be concerned with. First, the papers may indicate you've been ordered to appear for a “Temporary Orders” hearing. This is typically the first hearing in a divorce suit, and it is a significant one. Many things happen at the Temporary Orders hearing, including the Court making “temporary” orders regarding issues including who gets exclusive use of the marital home, who gets primary custody of the children, who will pay child support and how much, what vehicles the parties get to use during the pendency of the divorce, whether temporary spousal support will be ordered and how much, and even whether one party must pay “interim” attorney fees for the other party.
Importantly, most Courts require the parties to attend mediation before conducting a temporary hearing on issues regarding the children, so you'll likely be required to mediate early on in the case. This is where a knowledgeable and experienced mediator can really help. A mediator who understands family law and, importantly, how judges may view temporary order issues can be invaluable to you. Remember, when you mediate, you probably won't get everything you want, but at least you can avoid the uncertainty of leaving things up to the judge. With mediation, if an agreement is reached, it is on your terms!
The second important deadline is the “answer date” for responding to the suit. Texas has an unusual way of calculating this deadline, but basically, you take the date you were served with the suit papers and count forward twenty days. Then, the “Monday next” after the expiration of the twenty days is the actual answer due date. Even lawyers mess up this confusing calculation, so play it safe and give yourself plenty of time to file your written answer.
The answer date is crucial because it is the date by which a written answer to the lawsuit must be filed with the District Clerk, and a copy of the answer served on the attorney for the Petitioner. Failing to meet this critical deadline can result in disastrous consequences. For example, suppose you fail to timely file a written answer. In that case, you are subject to a “default judgment” being rendered against you, where essentially the final trial proceeds without you, and a judgment is rendered against you on all issues in the case. As you can imagine, if a default trial proceeds and you're not there to defend yourself, you will likely lose on every single issue.
Temporary Restraining Order
Another common thing you may see in the suit papers are temporary restraining orders (or “TROs”). TROs are commonly issued in divorce cases and are often mutual, meaning they apply equally to both spouses. In Fort Bend County, the family courts automatically impose temporary “mutual injunctions” while the case is pending, but the parties can additionally request that a TRO be entered.
TROs are common-sense orders the Judge will impose on the parties to order that they refrain from certain behaviors until a temporary orders hearing can be conducted. TROs prevent things that you already know you shouldn't do, such as committing violence against your spouse or a child, kidnapping a child, selling off or transferring marital assets, hiding money, canceling utilities, etc. Thus, a TRO includes necessary orders to protect your property, your safety, and the safety of the children until a temporary orders hearing can be held.
In an emergency, a TRO can order a parent to stay away from a child until a hearing can be held, but only upon filing an affidavit to support seeking such “extraordinary relief.” A TRO cannot include orders for custody or child support and cannot exclude a spouse from their residence except upon filing an affidavit to support a “kick-out order.” And a kick-out order can then only be issued if the Applicant appears before the Judge and offers oral testimony to justify issuance without notice to the other side and a chance to be heard.
TROs are emergency court orders that enjoin a party (or both) from taking some particular action until a temporary orders hearing can be held. A TRO only lasts for 14 days or until the temporary orders hearing, whichever is sooner. The TRO can be extended only once for another 14 days upon filing a written motion to extend.
TROs are Court “orders,” so obviously, if served with a TRO, you must abide by the restrictions imposed. If you fail to comply, you may face consequences from the Court, including a finding of contempt. Fortunately, any TRO issued must allow you to incur expenses and spend money that you usually would for everyday living expenses and regular business expenses, including hiring an attorney.
Objection to the Associate Judge
One often overlooked deadline is the date by which a party must file a written objection to an Associate Judge hearing the final trial. Under the Texas Family Code, the parties have a right to object to an Associate Judge and insist on a final trial being heard only by the Presiding Judge.
In Fort Bend County, all three Family District Courts have an “Associate Judge” whom the Presiding Judge may assign to hear cases. By a standing order, ALL family law cases in Fort Bend are automatically referred to the Associate Judge of the Court. This is significant because it triggers an obligation on the parties and their attorneys to file a written objection to the Associate Judge within ten days of filing a petition by the Petitioner or within ten days of filing an answer by the Respondent. Failure to timely object to the Associate Judge may result in a waiver of the right to object.
Can You Afford a Divorce Attorney?
Another key factor to consider after being served with divorce papers is whether you should retain an attorney to assist you. Generally speaking, you'll do much better if you have an experienced lawyer to assist you. Not every case requires an attorney, but if there are important issues like the division of real estate, businesses, and retirement accounts, or if there is a dispute over custody of children, you'll want to have a knowledgeable lawyer on your side.
Most attorneys in family cases bill for their time by the hour, with an up-front fee retainer being required. This is because of the uncertainty of contested litigation and the difficulty in predicting how much time will be involved to resolve the case. Because of the uniqueness of each case and the inability to control what the other side does, it can be challenging to predict the ultimate cost or even how long the case may take to resolve.
Don't Forget to Mediate!
Most family law cases must be mediated at least once before proceeding to a final trial. In fact, most courts also require mediation in cases involving disputes over custody, visitation, or child support hearing temporary orders. Armatys Millard can help with both! We understand the issues for temporary orders and for a final trial, and we will give you the benefit of our years of judicial experience and knowledge.
Armatys Millard Is Here to Help!
Mediation is a crucial step in resolving family law disputes. At Armatys Millard, we understand the importance of mediation in cases involving custody, visitation, and child support. Our team, led by Walter Armatys and John Millard, have years of experience in both family law and as judges, giving them a unique insight into the inner workings of the court system. We offer mediation and arbitration services for family law disputes in Fort Bend, Harris, and surrounding counties, utilizing our extensive experience and judicial wisdom to help bring a successful resolution to your case. Don't go through the process alone, let Armatys Millard guide you through mediation.
CONTACT US NOW
If you need to mediate or arbitrate a divorce, custody dispute, or other family law issue, Armatys Millard, PLLC, can help. Check availability and book your session online or call our office at 281-313-6800. We're here to help!