Every case has a beginning, and that is the filing of the initial pleadings and service on the other party. The typical civil lawsuit, for example a breach of contract action, is started when a person files a “Complaint.” The Complaint makes certain factual allegations, or assertions, to establish the person’s reasons for believing he or she is entitled to the relief asked for in the complaint. Complaints can include a single claim (referred to as a “cause of action”) or multiple claims. By contrast, to initiate a family court proceeding, a party files a “Petition” with the clerk of the court and pays the requisite filing fee.
The opposing party must be served with a copy of the Petition and summons by a process server (they can also waive service by signing the appropriate affidavit). The opposing party has 20 days from the date of service in which to file a written response with the court (or 30 days if the party is served out-of-state). The Respondent can waive service by signing and having notarized a formal “Acceptance of Service.” Additionally, the parties can agree to extend the response deadline. The Petition and Response make up the initial family court pleadings.
With family law cases, someone files a Petition at the moment he or she decides the court needs to become involved, as when the Petitioner has determined that the marriage is irretrievably broken. Sometimes a Petition is filed to get the other person’s attention, which it will, as an incentive to work seriously with counseling and the settlement of differences. Sometimes the Petition is filed because there is no other alternative to the couple’s problems and an end to the relationship as it currently exists is imminent. You should know that, even if a pending divorce has been ongoing for some time, the parties are always free to reconcile and dismiss their case at any time before the court issues a final decree.
Not surprisingly, the person who files the Petition is the Petitioner (in other civil cases, that person is the Plaintiff). The Petition is filed against the Respondent (in other civil cases, the Defendant). The Respondent answers the Petition by filing his or her responsive pleading (an answer) to the Petition. In family court matters, of course, most Petitions are filed by one spouse against the other spouse. With child support cases, however, the child support enforcement agency may bring the civil action on behalf of the State of Arizona, acting for the child or the parent.
Once the initial pleadings are filed, the court assigns your case to a Superior Court judge. The same judge hears all matters that arise throughout your case. On occasion, a judge is rotated to another area of law within the court. Should that occur, a different judge will be assigned to your case — the case picks up with the new judge where the previous judge left off.