Answering the Divorce/Dissolution Petition
After a divorce/dissolution petition is filed with the court, the petitioner (usually through his or her lawyer) makes sure that the petition is "served" (legally delivered) on the other spouse. The spouse who has been served with the divorce/dissolution petition is called the "respondent" or "defendant" in the divorce/dissolution process. He or she must respond to ("answer") the petition within a certain time (usually about three weeks).
It might help to think of the divorce process as a lawsuit (which it technically is), so that when you are served with a divorce/dissolution petition it is like being sued. You must respond to the allegations in the petition within a short time (usually 30 days), or you will lose your right to argue your position on issues like property division and child custody.
What Does the Answer Contain?
In a nutshell, the answer acknowledges the respondent's receipt of the divorce/dissolution petition, and states agreement or disagreement with the petition.
More specifically, the respondent's answer should clearly state his or her position on the filing spouse's statements and proposals found in the divorce/dissolution petition - including information about the spouses and marriage; and requests for child custody, property division, and support. Agreement or disagreement with the information and demands contained in the petition can often be declared on a pre-printed court form by checking boxes labeled "admitted" or "denied," in 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 own demands.
For example, assume that at Paragraph 3 of the petition for divorce/dissolution, the filing spouse declares that he or she is entitled to sole physical custody of the couple's children. If the respondent feels that he or she is (at minimum) entitled to joint custody, then the respondent would make that position (and reasons supporting that position) clear in the answer. In many states, this would 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 denial with a brief statement, and make his or her own custody demand in space provided on the form.
Failure to Answer -- Default
If the divorce/dissolution petition is properly served on the respondent, and he or she doesn't answer it, the court will likely assume that the respondent agrees to the divorce on the terms that the filing spouse set in the petition, and a "default" will be entered in the case -- meaning that by failing to answer the divorce/dissolution petition, the respondent's right to argue any part of the divorce has ended.
If a default is entered against a spouse who failed to answer a divorce/dissolution petition, he or she may be able to ask the court to remove or "set aside" the default so that the divorce can be contested, but the respondent will need to show sound 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 petition for divorce/dissolution looks like, and the information these documents usually contain:
- Colorado: Response to the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage [PDF] (CO Judiciary)
- Washington: Response to Petition (Domestic Relations) [PDF] (WA Courts)
- West Virginia: Answer to Divorce Petition [PDF] (WV Supreme Court of Appeals)