How to Respond to a Petition

By Teo Spengler
You have a limited amount of time to respond to a complaint.

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A petition is a document that begins a lawsuit. When you are named in the petition as the defendant, you must respond in the correct manner and at the appropriate time to take part in the lawsuit and defend yourself. You have a few options when it comes to responding -- and it is best to obtain legal advice as to which one to take and how to proceed.

Documents That Start a Lawsuit

Someone bringing a lawsuit must file the documents required in her jurisdiction. The opening document is called a petition or a complaint, depending on your state, and it is filed and served with another document called a summons. "Served" generally means that an adult who is not a party to the lawsuit hands it to you. The petition sets out the allegations against you. The summons tells you the case number, the name and address of the court, as well as the date by which you must respond.

Time to Respond

The time you have to respond to a petition varies among states but generally ranges from 20 to 30 days after it is served on you. In some states, the amount of time you have to respond depends on whether you were served personally, that is, handed a copy of the summons and petition, or whether you were served by someone leaving a copy of the papers at your home or work with the person in charge. If you fail to respond in the time frame given, the other side might be able to get a default judgment against you.

Answer to the Petition

Generally, a defendant files a document called an answer or response to the petition. The answer states your position on the different allegations in the petition. You can file a general denial of all the allegations in some states, but in others, like New York, you must admit or deny each allegation separately or assert that you do not have sufficient grounds to admit or deny an allegation. You can also add charges of your own against the person filing the complaint. These are termed counterclaims. You must sign and date the response.

Other Options

The other options you have for responding to a petition depend on the state in which you live. In some states, you can file a document termed a notice of demurrer if you believe that the petition is deficient in some way. For example, if the person who brings the petition is a minor, a demurrer might be appropriate. You can file it instead of a response or in addition to a response. In some states, a motion to dismiss is filed instead in this circumstance. In any event, whatever document you file with the court in response to a petition must be served on the other party. Generally you can serve the answer by mail. Send it to the attorney for the other party, or to a party if he is representing himself. The address appears on the top of the petition.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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