People often hear about “divorce papers” or contact a divorce lawyer when they receive documents from either their ex or ex’s attorney. But the term “divorce papers” can mean a few different things.
In most cases, people mean one of two possibilities: 1) A proposed separation agreement or 2) a lawsuit.
In some divorce situations, you might first receive a separation agreement, outlining the division of property, debts, child support, child custody, and alimony. You might receive this from your spouse directly or from his/her attorney. Sometimes attorneys will try this approach to see if there is a way to negotiate out of court.
It’s important to note that this agreement is a binding contract, which means you should contact your own attorney to make sure you understand the terms and can follow through on your part of the agreement. If your spouse is unwilling to negotiate, there is no way to force this document. 
To obtain a divorce, you must file a lawsuit that is granted by a judge, even if you and your spouse have already created a separation agreement. A lawsuit consists of a complaint and the summons. The complaint outlines the terms, while the summons gives the court the right to order you to do or not do something.
When people say they have received divorce papers, they most often mean they received the complaint and summons. If you receive these documents, you should immediately contact a divorce lawyer who can explain your rights.
Lawsuits of any type must be “served” on the other person. You might hear of one spouse complaining he or she has been “served” with divorce papers. Typically a sheriff will deliver such documents to you, which means you have been served. You then have a deadline for your response.
Learn more about the next steps in the divorce process by attending one of our monthly divorce workshops. Attendees hear from and have time to ask questions of an attorney, a financial adviser, and a therapist. Register now