A stranger knocks on your door, asks your name, and while handing you paperwork says “You’ve been served.” Individuals all around East Texas, Smith County and Tyler can relate. This is how lawsuits of all types start. But when it’s a divorce you’ve been served with, it’s vital that you make the right decisions every step of the way. Your decisions from here on out can change the result of your case.
This post answers some of the most common initial questions you may have when you get served with a divorce in Tyler, Texas or in the numerous counties around Smith County and Tyler.
What Does the Divorce Paperwork Mean?
First you need to read the paperwork. There is a lot of telling information if you just read it. Many people rip up, write all over, or even burn divorce paperwork. While cathartic perhaps this isn’t a good idea. You’ll want to read and later show the paperwork to an attorney, who will want a copy free of markings.
What is a Citation? What Happens if I don’t file an Answer?
In reading the paperwork, you’ll notice a “Citation” which tells you certain information, including a warning:
“If you don’t file an Answer to the lawsuit by 10 a.m. on the Monday after 20 days you will get defaulted.”
What does this mean? It means you need to file an Answer, a formal response to the lawsuit, 20 days after you’ve been given the paperwork or the other party wins. So, time is of the essence. You need to be calling local attorneys as soon as possible. That gets to the next question you may have.
Where is Court, and Who is the Judge?
There should be a petition with your court paperwork. It will say “Petition for Divorce” or something similar. On the first page at the top, you should see the county where Court is, be it Smith County, Henderson County, Rusk County, Gregg County, and so on. It will also have the name of the court, such as the 307th District Court or 321st District Court or County Court at Law #2.
You can look online to see where the courthouse is and even where the specific court is in the courthouse. Some courts are not even in the courthouse, but are in an annex or judicial complex or center. For example the 321st District Court is in the annex, and will be in the new courthouse when built, while most other courts in Smith County are in the courthouse on the square in Tyler.
Who is the Other Attorney? Does this mean I need an attorney?
On the citation and at the end of the petition you will see who the opposing attorney is. Of course, not all divorces are filed by attorneys. Your spouse may be representing him/herself, and this is called being Pro Se.
Some people may be tempted not to do anything if their spouse doesn’t have an attorney. This is a huge mistake. First, your spouse can get an attorney at any time, even if they didn’t start with one thereby catching you flat-footed if you try to seek counsel at the last minute. Second, if your spouse never gets an attorney but you do, you have a great advantage. And, third, your spouse might be better at representing himself than you are!
If your spouse does have an attorney, you need one. As an attorney that goes against pro se parties at times, I can tell you that it is not a fair fight.
Knowing the opposing attorney’s name is likewise important. The attorney may reach out to you or you may want to talk to the opposing attorney. In seeking an attorney yourself it would be a mistake to call the opposing attorney, because they obviously can’t represent you and you’ve just alerted them you are seeking counsel soon.
What does a petition mean? Will my spouse get attorney’s fees?
Many people get served with a divorce petition and have more questions than answers. This is normal. A petition is a unique document unlike any other legal document. Think of it as a general outline of what your spouse may want. It asks for court orders on topics like conservatorship, possession and access, geographical restrictions, division of property and potentially so much more. These are all legal terms, so don’t assume you know what they mean. You need to ask an attorney for clarification.
Also, don’t assume your spouse will insist on getting everything they ask for, or even that they want everything they ask for. It’s common knowledge to attorneys that their clients cannot get what they don’t ask for. So attorneys ask for a lot in petitions, whether they expect to get it or not. Case in point: many petitions ask for attorney’s fees, i.e. that you pay for your spouse’s attorney. A court order requiring you to pay your spouse’s attorney, while sometimes possible, is relatively rare. But attorneys know if they don’t ask for it, they can’t get it later.
What is a Temporary Restraining Order? Why did my spouse get one against me?
Ah, the temporary restraining order. Perhaps nothing is more confusing and upsetting to clients than this document. Temporary restraining orders are typically filed with the petition. Temporary restraining orders are very common in divorce especially. A temporary restraining order is not a protective order, it’s temporary, it’s typically granted by a court without a court hearing or an affidavit, and it’s typically about preserving the status quo and making sure the parties don’t do something stupid, like destroying community property or talking about the case with the children.
Make sure you read the TRO very closely. It’s likely that nothing in the TRO is objectionable to you. If it is objectionable, take heart; it’s temporary and you will have a chance to have a temporary orders hearing (sometimes just called a TRO hearing) to argue that the TRO should go away.
Sometimes a TRO contains “extraordinary relief,” which could include an order restraining you from seeing your children. This too is temporary, but requires you to be especially proactive in getting an attorney asap. You can read more about TROs here.
When do I go to Court?
If you get a temporary restraining order, it likely contains a court date, sometimes on one of the last pages, so read carefully. This court date could be just a day or two away. It’s vital you start calling attorneys now. Even if an attorney can’t be available that day, a reset of the court date may be possible but is much more likely if you can retain an attorney.
Steps in Choosing an Attorney
Should I get a local divorce attorney? Wouldn’t a Dallas or Houston attorney be better?
Note the location of the opposing attorney. You’ll likely notice that your spouse has retained an attorney local to your area, be it Tyler or Athens or Rusk or Longview. It’s important that you too get a local attorney, but also one that practices family law in that court. Local is a relative term. You don’t necessarily need an attorney from the county where the divorce is filed, because many attorneys practice in adjoining counties.
Many attorneys also don’t live in the towns where they office, making multiple counties easily accessible from their office or home. For instance, if an attorney officing in Tyler lives in Flint, he can just as easily get to court in Henderson or Palestine as he can Tyler. Local is a relative term, but I wouldn’t go too far to retain counsel. An attorney in Canton for example may not be as familiar with a court in Rusk County, two counties away.
Some people choose Dallas or Houston area attorneys or large firms. In my experience, courts in East Texas don’t do Dallas or Houston attorneys any favors just because they come from the big city or a large firm. Also remember that in family law, maybe more than any other area of law, it’s important to know your judge. If a local attorney has a better feel for the biases and attitude of your judge, you benefit from this local knowledge and experience.
Where do I look for a divorce attorney?
You know you need someone local. But how do you find an attorney that is right for you? Referrals are great, but beware. An attorney your uncle or brother recommends may not practice family law or go to court where your divorce is, or, may not be equipped to handle the type of case you have. If in doubt, a Google search is a useful tool to vet attorneys.
In reviewing attorneys online, take note of a few things:
- Does the attorney practice family law? I practice family law and criminal law. I primarily do family law. This is important. Many attorneys practice in many areas. There is nothing wrong with this, but an attorney that practices in five areas may not have the knowledge and experience as one that focuses on two or three areas of law.
- Does the attorney have good reviews: We all know that reviews can be deceiving, but consistently bad reviews could be cause for concern.
- Does the attorney have a good website: I certainly won’t argue that if an attorney has a bad website that he or she is a bad attorney. But you can learn a lot about an attorney from their website. You can learn about the attorney’s background and his or her advertising strategy. You can get a feel for what makes the attorney tick and their personality. The website may give you good vibes or bad vibes. Trust your gut, as an attorney’s website is typically reviewed and approved by the attorney and is a good indicator of what the attorney is like and what they stand for.
Why Can’t I talk to a family law attorney right away? Will an attorney charge a consultation or office-visit fee?
When it comes to scheduling or calling attorneys many don’t know what to expect. This makes sense. Many Tyler and East Texas residents have no desire or need to contact an attorney until their first divorce or custody case. We’ve all met with doctors, but not all of us have met with lawyers. Here are some answers to common questions when it comes to setting up and scheduling with your potential attorney:
Can I just talk to an attorney on the phone?
Possibly. I offer free phone consultations of 5 to 10 minutes. But I can’t be available for such consultations when I’m in court or preparing for court or in a meeting with current or potential clients. So, I must typically schedule phone calls. Calls are usually scheduled quickly, but not always due to scheduling conflicts.
If you can schedule a phone call or meeting with an attorney on the same day or within a couple of days that is great, but meeting with the attorney that will handle your case may take a week or more. This isn’t necessarily bad. It’s an indicator of a good, busy attorney. Just like good doctors don’t have much availability, good lawyers don’t either.
I have an emergency situation, how do I make sure I get a quick appointment?
At TLC Law, like many firms I would wager, potential clients are screened by staff. My staff will note if you need to be seen soon. There may be many reasons you can’t wait even a couple of days for a meeting: you have court very soon, there is abuse or neglect alleged, you have an order restricting or denying your access to your children, etc. Each person’s case is unique and you should feel free to explain your situation to an attorney’s staff so they can’t relay the urgency of a quick meeting.
Will I have to pay for an office-visit or consultation?
Typically, yes. Free phone consultations are great, but in many cases an office meeting or Zoom meeting is preferable. Time is money for attorneys so you can expect to pay somewhere around $100 to $300 for an hour office visit with an attorney.
What will an office visit with an attorney be like? What documents do I need? What Questions Should I Ask My Potential Tyler attorney? Why is the attorney being so negative about my case?
Once you are set to meet with an attorney, whether it be in Tyler, Longview, Canton, Henderson, Quitman, or over Zoom, you ask yourself: what can I expect and how can I prepare?
First of all, bring your court paperwork. Not having your paperwork could cause a reset of your meeting, the need to schedule a further meeting, or a delay as the attorney tries to get needed paperwork from the Court (if they even can without paying a fee).
Second, be prepared for some harsh reality checks. Any good family law attorney will be happy to read your court papers, ask questions, listen to your concerns, be polite and cordial, and then…give you brutally honest advice that you may not be ready to hear. As an attorney, I must give the bad news just as readily as the good. If I think your argument for x, y and z, or your evidence to support a, b and c is less than stellar, I will say so. Any good attorney will give you honest advice about the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
Don’t confuse this with hesitancy or an unwillingness to help you. Attorneys know that helping clients achieve their ends is just as much about shining a light on the “warts,” the skeletons in the closet, the unknown things clients might forget, undersell or embellish, then it is about highlighting the good and rosy aspects of your case.
If your potential attorney is brutally honest, that’s probably a good thing. Just figure out how your attorney plans to make the best of your situation. It’s one thing to be honest, it’s another for an attorney to make the best of your situation and formulate a plan of attack.
Third, be prepared with a list of questions. There are no stupid questions. Attorneys spend their lives practicing family law and don’t have everything figured out. You, a newbie to family law matters, shouldn’t be expected to know legal terms and procedures and how things work. Just ask.
Other Actions I can Take to Help My Divorce Case
You should organize your records and take an inventory of your property. In a divorce, community property is up for division. So, it would be wise to start organizing your records and making lists of your property.
You should also organize evidence. What is evidence? Anything that you think could be helpful to your case, from documents, to phone recordings, to texts, to videos, to pictures. The more organized you are the easier it will be for your attorney to sort through it and the less you will be billed.
You should also consider steps at self-improvement. If drugs are an issue, rehab can help your case. If your communication with your spouse is hostile, it will look better if you now take the high road.
Of course, even before you step into an attorney’s office, you can make your attorney’s job easier and your case better.
Whether you want a divorce or not, getting served with one can be traumatizing and lead to a number of bad decisions from the start. Reading the paperwork, calling and scheduling a meeting with a local attorney, and being organized is a great start.
If you need help after being served with a divorce in Tyler, give TLC Law a call at (903) 871-1714 to see if we can help with your case.