Going through a divorce can be the most stressful and difficult time in a person’s life. If that has become your reality, you need to know how the process works, and you need to protect yourself, legally and procedurally, so that you have a voice in the process.
A divorce starts like any other lawsuit, with a “Complaint.” Generally, the Complaint lists the person seeking the divorce as the “Plaintiff” and the person being sued for divorce as the “Defendant.” Even in “uncontested” divorces, someone has to take the role of Plaintiff. The Complaint for Divorce will typically include (1) some required statistical information about the parties, including names and addresses, (2) a statement relating to jurisdiction (which allows the Court to “hear” the case), (3) grounds for divorce (see Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-101), (4) a brief description of the parties’ marital property and a request for an “equitable division” of the marital estate, (5) information relating to any minor children of the parties and typically a reference to an attached Proposed Parenting Plan, (6) any other claims for relief or remedies the Plaintiff is seeking.
The purpose of this post is to notify readers that there are time requirements for responding to a Complaint for Divorce (or mostly any other Complaint). The first thing one should do when they receive a Complaint is very important: READ THE ENTIRE DOCUMENT AND ALL ATTACHMENTS. A Complaint should be attached to a Summons. Generally, there should also be a document called a “General Restraining Order in Divorce Actions” and, if there are minor children, a Proposed Parenting Plan. The Summons should tell you the Court the action is filed in, the case number, the identity of the Plaintiff (and an address for their attorney) and Defendant, and a time period for when an Answer must be filed.
In a divorce in Tennessee, you will need to file an Answer within thirty (30) days from the date you were “served” with the Complaint and Summons. Generally, “service” is accomplished when you receive a copy of (and probably sign for) the Complaint and Summons. There are other ways to obtain service, such as through mail or publication, but those will not be addressed in this post. Regarding calculation of time, Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 6.01 tells us: “[i]n computing any period of time prescribed or allowed by these rules, by order of court, or by any applicable statute, the date of the act, event or default after which the designated period of time begins to run is not to be included. The last day of the period so computed shall be included unless it is a Saturday, a Sunday, or a legal holiday.”
The best advice? Do NOT wait until the deadline or even a day or two before the deadline. If you have an attorney, ask your attorney to file your answer on time (unless there is a reason not to, or unless you’ve been given an extension). If you are proceeding pro se (representing yourself without an attorney), you should file (with the Court Clerk) and serve (on the Plaintiff or their lawyer, if they are represented) the Answer before the thirty (30) day period expires.
An Answer should reasonably respond to the allegations in the Complaint. A simple way to draft an Answer is to “admit” or “deny” each paragraph where an allegation is made. The effect of not filing an Answer subjects a Defendant to the possibility of a Default Judgment. “When a party against whom a judgment … is sought has failed to plead or otherwise defend as provided by these rules and that fact is made to appear by affidavit or otherwise, judgment by default may be entered….” (Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 55.01). A Default Judgment can allow a Court to grant the Plaintiff their requested relief without the Defendant’s presence or over the Defendant’s objection if they are present at the hearing.
Some Defendants may prefer to file an Answer and a Counter-Complaint for Divorce, if you wish to plead grounds for divorce as well. If you have minor children, and the Plaintiff filed a Proposed Parenting Plan, it is best practice to file your own Proposed Parenting Plan that you believe is in the child(ren)’s best interest, if you do not agree with the Plaintiff’s plan. The Divorce paperwork you receive may include a blank parenting plan.
Once you file the Answer, you can move forward to the period of investigation, discovery, and potentially negotiation of a fair and equitable resolution. But first, protect yourself and file your Answer!
I hope this entry will assist some readers in understanding the time constraints at the beginning of a Divorce. For a more detailed description of the process, please see “The Divorce Process in Tennessee: What you Need to Know When Contacting an Attorney” on this site or, better yet, consult with one of our family law attorneys.