When someone files a lawsuit, the top page is called a “summons.” The first part of this document simply notifies you that you have been sued, and to whom you need to send your response. The second part of the document contains an important warning: it says that if you do not respond within 30 days of receiving the summons, you can be subject to a “default judgment.” In other words, if you do not respond, the other side can go to court and get an Order giving them everything they asked for in their lawsuit. In a divorce or custody case, this means you could potentially lose all of your assets, be saddled with all of the marital debts, owe alimony, and lose all custodial rights to your children.
If you’d like to continue to see your children, keep your stuff, avoid paying all of the debt and giving your ex a large part of your paycheck, you need to act, and act now. Get a lawyer. Do not wait until day 29 to make that appointment; any lawyer is going to need at least a few days to get you in for an appointment, assess your case, prepare the appropriate response, and get it filed with the Court.
What happens if the default has already happened by the time you read this? It’s a much harder case, but sometimes, you may have a defense. A lawyer can occasionally get a default judgment set aside, if she can prove that your failure to respond was due to “excusable neglect.” In other words, if you have a good excuse, you may not feel the brunt of this. But don’t take that for granted: being in the hospital may be a good excuse, but being in the bed with the flu likely isn’t. The paperwork getting served improperly is likely a good excuse, but being too busy at work to deal with this in the time you had likely isn’t.
Not having the money to hire a lawyer, unfortunately, is not usually a good excuse. If you are served with a default judgment, and you have something in this process to lose, this is the time to call in that favor from a family member, do some handiwork for a neighbor, borrow against that retirement account, and get into see someone. It’s a lot easier to prevent something bad from happening through a default judgment than it is to get one set aside. And the absolute worst thing you can do in such circumstances is to put your head in the sand.
If you’d like to schedule a case assessment with Margaret Held or another Held Law Firm attorney, please call (865) 685-4780.