Summons & Petition
The spouse who starts the divorce is called the petitioner. The other spouse is called the respondent. The petitioner and the respondent are the "parties" in the divorce.
A divorce officially starts when the petitioner requests that a Summons and Petition be delivered to the respondent. It must be delivered, in person, by the sheriff or some adult other than the petitioner. This is called Service. Sometimes the respondent cannot be “served” personally with the Summons and Petition because the petitioner does not know where he or she is and has no way to find out. In this case the petitioner can apply to the court for permission to “serve” another way—such as mailing the papers to an address where mail will likely be forwarded to the respondent or publishing a notice in a newspaper. This special service starts the legal proceedings in cases where the respondent cannot be personally served.
The Petition is a legal paper stating that the petitioner wants the court to divorce the parties and how the petitioner wants the court to decide the other questions raised in a divorce. The decisions the court will make are called Relief. The Petition also states the reasons for the divorce and for the other relief requested.
The Summons is a separate legal paper telling the respondent to answer the Petition within 30 days. If the respondent does not, he or she is in default and the divorce is uncontested. This means the petitioner (the spouse who wanted the divorce) may be granted the divorce and other relief requested.
The Summons also forbids both parties from selling or getting rid of any property or harassing one another. It requires each party to maintain any insurance for the family. If one spouse spends money belonging to both parties after receiving the Summons, he or she will have to explain to the court why the money was spent.
Answer & Counter-Petition
The respondent may disagree with the relief asked for by the petitioner and want the court to hear his or her side.
The respondent then must serve an Answer on the petitioner's attorney within 30 days of the date the respondent was served.
An Answer is a legal paper saying what the respondent says back to the Petition. Just calling up the petitioner to say something like "I don't like this" is not an Answer. The Answer may be mailed to the petitioner's lawyer. It does not need to be personally served.
The Answer states whether the respondent thinks the petitioner's statements in the petition are true or false. It also tells the court what the respondent wants.
An Answer may include a Counter-Petition, in which the respondent states what he or she wants the court to decide and why. Often a Counter-Petition is filed with the Answer so that the respondent can continue with the divorce if the petitioner later decides to withdraw the Petition.
Once an Answer is served, the case is contested and the proceeding can be finished only by a settlement or a trial.