There are a lot of scary things in this world, but hearing a person you don't know ask your name just before handing you a sealed envelope thick with documents ranks pretty high on the list, especially if you never expected to be served with divorce or custody papers. Many of our clients have been in this exact situation and this article is meant to explore options you have to protect yourself when it feels like the rug has just been pulled out from beneath your feet.
As Soon As Possible, Talk With an Attorney
This is not the time to play "ostrich" and stick your head in the sand! Being served with litigation papers of any kind means a ball is rolling down a track and the clock has already started ticking on the deadlines prescribed by the law for you to respond. When it comes to being served with any kind of family court action, it's important to talk to the most qualified attorney you can afford who practices exclusively in family court. Time matters, particularly early in the case, and you don't want to hurt your case by waiting too long to get proper advice and to file responsive pleadings (the papers your attorney will prepare for you to answer the allegations raised in the Complaint).
Therefore, it is important that you contact an attorney sooner rather than later, because the more time you give your attorney, the more opportunity he has to advise you about all of your available options and to help you protect your interests. Keep in mind that just because your cousin's wife is an attorney, if she's not an experienced family law attorney practicing in your town or your state, her advice might not be best for you in the long run since she will be unfamiliar with the family court rules, the local judges, and "how things are done" where you live. If she practices in another state, she may not be licensed to practice in South Carolina and won't have any specific knowledge of the laws in South Carolina.
Start Collecting Information About Your Finances & Property
When you set up the appointment with the attorney, their office staff will tell you to bring a copy of all of the papers that were given to you when you were served. If it's a large stack, ask if you can fax the documents to the office or drop them off prior to your appointment time so the attorney can review them ahead of time. This will ensure that the valuable consultation time is spent advising you of your rights and obligations under the law depending on what has been filed with the court. The attorney will also be able to give you some idea of the costs for representation in your case, as well as things you should do on your own to protect those rights.
In a divorce case, information is your most powerful tool. Understanding your family's finances is critical, and for those who may not be intimately involved in financial matters, it is essential to begin gathering documents immediately. Once you separate from your spouse, especially if you are not the spouse who keeps up with the financial matters, it will be much more difficult to have easy access to this information. Make copies of pay stubs, bank statements, retirement account statements, credit card statements, income tax returns, and anything else you think might be important later on. It's much easier to begin gathering these types of documents early on rather than wait until the case is in full swing. If you have questions about what types of documents may be important, ask your attorney for a checklist of things to gather.
Don't Put Your Children in the Middle
Though it may be difficult, you should resist the urge to pull your children into the middle of your separation or divorce. Do not vent your frustrations to them, and do not make negative or disparaging remarks to them about their parent. Divorce is already a difficult process for the whole family, and putting the children into the middle of things will only make it worse. Your job is to be there for emotional support for the kids, even when you may need the same support for yourself.
Your attorney will tell you that pitting the children against their other parent will never put you in the good light with the family court system, i.e, the judge, the Guardian ad Litem, or the attorneys, even when the other parent's behavior is questionable, at best. If you believe your children may need additional emotional support during the separation and divorce, ask your attorney for recommendations of qualified, experienced therapists who specialize in working with divorced families. Putting your children's needs above your own will rarely backfire on your in a family court case.
The Stevens Firm, P.A. - Family Law Center has provided exceptional legal counsel and support to families throughout South Carolina for over two decades, handling all matters of family law, such as child custody, child support, and divorce. We are well-equipped to handle all divorce and family law matters, no matter your circumstances. Contact us at (864) 598-9172 or by clicking here to schedule an initial consultation.