Oof. You did not want to be served divorce papers. We get it.

Now that it’s happened, the most important thing is not to panic. Movies and television shows sometimes make a big deal about filing first. But in most divorces, who filed first becomes quickly irrelevant.

Take a few hours or a day to process your feelings with a therapist or a trusted friend. Let yourself be sad or angry or scared.

Then read on to learn the steps you need to take to protect yourself and your interests.

Does it matter who files first in a divorce?

The person who files first in a divorce proceeding does get to set the start date for the proceedings. However, in most divorces, the benefit to filing first doesn’t go much further than that.

Why?

Because the majority of people file for divorce on no-fault grounds. That means the legal basis for the divorce is the couple’s inability to remain married. In Georgia, the marriage is said to be “irretrievably broken.”

Even if the person filing first alleges a fault-based ground (say, adultery), the respondent can allege their own fault-based ground. So any perceived advantage of being the first to state a grievance is short-lived.

Learn more about how who files first impacts divorce.

What to do when your husband or wife files for divorce

Your spouse doesn’t gain some big advantage by filing first. But they have gotten the ball rolling, so you should take steps to protect your interests.

Read the documents

First, carefully read everything you received.

The documents will tell you where your spouse filed for divorce. This is particularly important if you live in different jurisdictions. The filing will also give you the basics of what your spouse is asking for and whether they’re alleging any fault.

In Georgia, a spouse can allege a specific reason for the divorce (the “grounds” for divorce) or ask for a no-fault divorce. In no-fault divorces, the legal reason for the divorce is simply that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Neither party claims individual responsibility for it.

Georgia has 12 fault grounds for divorce, ranging from adultery to drug addiction.

Hire an attorney

The decisions made in a divorce can have lasting impacts on your life — even if your divorce seems straightforward.

There’s a time limit on your response to the divorce complaint. You may not want to hire the first divorce attorney you talk to, so start contacting attorneys quickly.

Even if you’re in agreement with the divorce and you think the requests your spouse made are fair, have an attorney review the documents. Especially if your spouse has already hired an attorney, you want to be on even footing with them.

Some people want to avoid hiring a divorce attorney because of the expense. Fortunately, divorce attorney costs vary widely. Parties have some control over how much their legal representation costs.

Divorce attorneys that specialize in low-conflict divorce often have more flexible payment structures. For instance, you and your spouse may choose to do some negotiating on your own. You do not need every conversation between you to go through attorneys.

Going to court is the most expensive part of a divorce case. If you work with an attorney that’s focused on keeping you out of court, you’ll reduce the cost of representation.

See: How to Choose an Uncontested Divorce Lawyer

File a response

The documents you received will tell you how long you have to file a response. If you and your spouse both live in Georgia, you have 30 days from the date you received the divorce papers.

If you don’t file a response, the court can go forward with a hearing without any notice to you. That means your spouse might get everything they are asking for

If you’ve retained an attorney, they’ll draft a response for you

See: Amicable Divorce: How to Keep Things Peaceful When You’re Ending a Marriage

Protect your assets

First off: don’t try to start selling anything off or hiding assets. Be transparent about your financial actions throughout the divorce process. You’ll put yourself in a much better position for an amicable divorce and stay out of trouble with the judge.

If you don’t have a bank account in your own name, open one. If you’re concerned that your spouse might take money out of a joint account, talk to your lawyer about how to separate funds now.

If you don’t currently have an emergency fund, set up a savings account and start to create one now. Having some money set aside can create peace of mind during the divorce process.

Sometimes people hide money in anticipation of or during a divorce. If you think that’s happening, you can hire a forensic accountant to help. That’s an expense usually reserved for high net-worth couples.

Gather financial documents

You want to enter into this process with a full understanding of your position.

Find all your financial documents. These might include statements from investment, retirement, or bank accounts. Look for your mortgage statement, car loan bills, and credit card bills.

What’s your current situation? Print out statements or take screenshots.

If you have children, begin making a list of all their expenses.

Understanding what’s happening right now can help you determine what you want to ask for in the divorce process.

Now is also a good time to change beneficiary designations on life insurance policies or retirement accounts (assuming your court allows this). Many people have their spouse listed and may forget to change them after a divorce.

See: 7 Divorce Mediation Tips for Couples Ready to Move On

Opting for an uncontested divorce when your spouse filed first

If you want an amicable divorce, don’t let your spouse filing first stop you from trying.

Uncontested divorces are less expensive and less time-consuming than contested divorces. To have a true uncontested divorce, you and your spouse must come to a full agreement on all terms before filing the petition for divorce.

You can’t do that if they’ve already filed.

But you can work to settle the case amicably. Start by hiring an attorney that specializes in low-conflict and uncontested divorces. Then talk to your spouse about the financial benefits of an amicable divorce.

We help couples complete their divorces with as little drama as possible. Contact Porchlight to find out how we can support you. Resolve your divorce without spending unnecessary money on drawn-out legal battles.