I’ve Just Been Handed Court Papers. What Do I Do Next?
Being served with any kind of lawsuit can be a jarring experience and it is important you act fast to protect your legal rights. Typically this notice consists of a document called a “Summons” and a “Petition” or “Complaint” stating what your opponent is asking the court to order.
The first thing you should do is reach out to an experienced attorney to discuss case and seek advice on how to respond (which you are probably doing right if you are reading this). You can do this by calling us on the phone ( 855-254-2600 ) or online via our easy to use request a consultation form. You can usually speak with one of our attorneys right then and there. We will then schedule a time for you to come in our office for a free half hour consultation to discuss your case, your options, the likelihood of success, and the cost to resolve the issue in court versus a negotiated settlement of some kind.
When you are served with court papers you will generally be provided with a document called a “Summons” that explains the nature of the lawsuit (e.g. divorce, custody, child support, personal injury, breach of contract, etc.), the name and address of the court handling the matter, the case number and judge assigned, and the number of days you have to respond after being served. For most civil cases if you are served in the State of Utah you will have 21 days (3 weeks) to respond. And if you are served outside of Utah concerning a Utah case then you will typically receive 30 days to respond. However, there are exceptions to these general rules and it is important you read the Summons you were served with to determine the precise deadline that applies to your case.
If you do not respond to a lawsuit in time then it is likely the court will grant your opponent everything he or she is asking for on a “default” basis. That means everything listed in the other side’s petition or complaint could become a court order. If you do not completely agree with everything your opponent is asking for then it is important to let the court know as the consequences of doing nothing could be severe. Many people have lost their children, their homes, their income, and suffered all sorts of unpleasant consequences because they did not take court papers they were served with seriously until it was too late. Do not make that mistake yourself.
The process for “contesting” a lawsuit generally involves filing a document called an “Answer” where you tell the court on a line-by-line basis everything in your opponent’s lawsuit that you disagree with and everything you do agree with. This document helps the judge understand what issues the court will have to resolve at some point if there is not a settlement. In some cases you may be able to file a “Motion to Dismiss” asking the court to toss the lawsuit altogether if there is a legal reason why the other side should lose that does not require the judge to resolve conflicting facts. You can also include a “Counterclaim” where you file a lawsuit against your opponent which he or she will now have to respond to within a certain number of days, otherwise you could obtain a default judgment against them.
After a case becomes “contested” it typically proceeds in the “discovery” and “motion for temporary orders” stage. During this period the parties may ask the court to enter “temporary orders” deciding how they will share custody of their children, divide their assets, handle child support and alimony, and various other issues while they prepare for trial. The parties will also be expected to exchange list of what witnesses they will call at trial, what exhibits they may use, and will have an opportunity to request information from the other side. They may also hire expert witnesses like child custody evaluators to investigate and offer recommendations as to what custody / parent-timesharing arrangements would work best for their children. During this process the parties will typically attend mediation and attempt to agree on terms to resolve their cases. Most family cases (probably 90% in your author’s opinion) settle on reasonable terms without having to go to trial which is why judges require mediation in most cases. However, if your case does not settle then it will eventually go before a judge and the court will decide how to resolve things.