A summons is a formal notification to you that a case has been filed. In the case of a divorce, it informs you that your spouse filed for divorce and may schedule the first court appearance. The summons and service of the summons is a key event after which you must take certain steps or risk being excluded from the divorce process. Below we discuss some questions you may have after being served with a divorce summons.
Out of the blue I was served with a divorce summons. What do I do?
The practical answer is that as soon as possible you should hire the best lawyer you can afford.
How much time do I have after I am served with summons?
Thirty days. If you do not take action within the 30 days you may be defaulted, that is, the court will assume you have no interest in what your spouse does in the proceedings and after you are defaulted the case may proceed to conclusion without notice to you.
What happens if I am defaulted?
Your spouse will be able to have a divorce judgment entered giving him whatever relief he wishes as long as what he is asking for is not “unconscionable.” My definition of unconscionable is that when the judge hears what your spouse wants, the judge thinks, “Oh my God!”
If I want to represent myself what do I do?
Within the 30 days after service of summons (not counting the day you were served) you should file an appearance, which is a document stating that you will represent yourself, and you must also file a response to the petition for dissolution of marriage.
The response should have paragraphs which are numbered to correspond to the numbers contained in the dissolution of marriage petition. In these numbered paragraphs you should either admit or deny what is alleged in the petition. You should sign the response and also verify it.
For the form for verification, you should look at the petition for dissolution of marriage, which is also required to be verified. Each time you file a document in court you have to serve a copy of it on the lawyer for your spouse. At the bottom of your document, therefore, you should have an affidavit stating when and where you mailed the document to your spouse’s counsel.
Do you encourage people to represent themselves?
Hardly ever. It is like doing surgery on yourself. You have the legal right to perform surgery on yourself, but it is usually a very bad idea.
What should I do to prepare?
Aside from filing documents in court, and whether or not I am represented by counsel, what should I do to prepare for the negotiations, or trial?
Gather all the financial documents you can. I advise my clients to gather all the documents they can with numbers and a dollar sign.
NOTICE: Case set for Scheduling Conference. Is this the trial date?
On the petition for dissolution of marriage with which I was served there is stamped a “NOTICE,” which states that the case is set for a “scheduling conference” on a certain date. Is this the trial date?
No. It is merely a time when the judge determines the status of the case and if necessary the judge schedules future action in the case.
Notice of Motion with a Petition for Temporary Relief
Together with the summons and petition for dissolution of marriage I was served with a “Notice of Motion” with a “Petition for Temporary Relief” attached. The Notice of Motion states a date, time of day, and identity of a judge before whom my spouse’s attorney is going to appear. Is this a court date with which I should be concerned?
Yes. Definitely. This means that the other side is seeking temporary relief, which can be by way of temporary child custody, temporary visitation, temporary maintenance (alimony), attorney fees etc. It is unwise not to be represented by counsel at a hearing for temporary relief, but if you have not yet had time to retain a lawyer you should appear before the judge at the time and place indicated and ask the judge to continue the hearing to give you an opportunity to hire a lawyer.
If I am representing myself, are there forms available that I can copy for my court papers?
Some. The clerk of the court will have a few forms available, such as summons, notice of motion and appearance. The clerk, however, does not have “pleading” forms.
Pleadings are papers by which you ask the court to grant you certain relief, or by which you respond to the other side’s request. Gitlin on Divorce: A Guide to Illinois Matrimonial Law should be available in law libraries. The third volume contains a basic set of forms. The problem of self-representation is finding the right form and filling it in correctly.
When a lawyer represents himself in court it is said that “The lawyer has a fool for a client.” This saying is true in spades for a non-lawyer who represents himself.