Everyone has seen a hearing on TV, but very few people know the process that leads up to that hearing. 95% of family law cases get settled before they even go to trial. Family law cases can be very stressful, but knowing what’s coming next can help lessen that stress. For a few weeks, we will look at the steps of a family law case prior to a hearing.
Part 4: Answers
At this point, we’ve discussed what happens when you are initiating a lawsuit. Today, we’re going to discuss your first step when someone else brings a family law case against you. In the event that your spouse or your child’s other parent files a complaint and serves the summons and complaint on you, that person becomes the Plaintiff and you become a Defendant. As a defendant, your very first step is to contact a family law attorney, who will advise you of your rights and file an Answer.
An Answer is a response to the claims in a Complaint. For each cause of action that the plaintiff lists, you as the defendant need to provide an answer to that claim. Generally, each paragraph in a complaint contains one statement or allegation, and each paragraph is numbered. In an answer, each statement or fact is usually referenced by number and answered individually. There are three possible responses to each claim in a complaint: admission, denial, or lack of personal knowledge. Most people’s instinct is not to admit anything at all, but facts that are typically admitted include basic information like a date of marriage, a child’s name, parentage, and birthday, or a date of separation. Of course, you won’t agree with everything in the complaint; if you agreed on everything, a lawsuit wouldn’t be needed! Any facts you don’t agree with should be denied. Some statements may be a mix of things you agree with and things you don’t. In those instances, your answer should explain exactly which parts you agree or disagree with. Some things might be outside of your knowledge, like the income of your child’s other parent. It is important to admit that you don’t know instead of guessing at the truth of those statements, because you may be held to your guess later.
Your answer may also contain counterclaims. You may have causes of action, Part 2, against the plaintiff. In an answer, you can make any claims that you would have been able to make if you had been the one to file the complaint. If the complaint is related to a divorce or separation, you will need to make any claims relating to that divorce in your answer. If you don’t, you may lose the right to make those claims later. You may also make any affirmative defense. Certain defenses against the allegations in the complaint have to be included in your answer, for instance, if your spouse accuses you of marital misconduct and you claim that they forgave you. A family law attorney will tell you what defenses need to be included.
Once your answer is ready, you must verify that it is true to the best of your knowledge by signing a statement in front of a notary. Your answer must be filed within 30 days of receiving service of the complaint unless you request a 30-day extension from the court. The plaintiff must then admit or deny any claims you have made against them.
An answer does not have to be personally served like a complaint does. Instead, after the answer is filed with the clerk of court, it is sent to the plaintiff according to Rule 5, which we will discuss in a later blog. Your answer is your first impression on the court, and it is important to work closely with your attorney to ensure that your answer is as accurate as possible.