Understanding the Divorce Process in New Jersey.
While every case is different most cases follow the same general Court process. At any time during this process, or even before, the parties can resolve their differences privately. Prompt resolution conserves funds and minimizes the emotional stress of divorce. The parties can agree and execute a written Matrimonial Settlement Agreement that sets forth each party's rights and obligations to each other and the children, if any, as well as the disposition for the parties' assets. Many cases resolve in this fashion and private settlement should be pursued prior and during the Court process below.
The Court process to obtain a divorce generally begins upon the filing of a Complaint for Divorce in the County that the parties reside. The spouse who files the Complaint for Divorce is termed the “Plaintiff" and the other spouse is the “Defendant".
There are numerous grounds for Divorce including irreconcilable differences, extreme cruelty, adultery, etc...The Complaint for Divorce not only sets forth a spouse’s grounds for divorce but also what relief the Plaintiff seeks such as custody of the children, support and division of assets.
The Complaint is served on the Defendant. The Defendant can either sign an Acknowledgement of Service, indicating that he or she has received the Complaint for Divorce, or a process server can formally serve the Complaint on the Defendant. Once the Defendant is “served" with the Complaint for Divorce he or she has thirty-five (35) days to respond. The Defendant files a response, known as an Answer, Appearance or an Answer and Counterclaim for Divorce. This is the Defendant's opportunity to respond to the Plaintiff’s allegations and requested relief and set forth his or her independent cause of action and relief.
In the event that the Defendant does not respond within the 35 day time period, then a Notice of Default is filed by Plaintiff's attorney and a Default Hearing is scheduled. The Plaintiff files a Notice of Equitable Distribution and Support with the Court setting forth his or her requested relief for alimony, child support and distribution of property. This is done at least 20 days prior to the divorce hearing upon notice to the Defendant. If the Defendant does not agree with the Plaintiff’s requests the case is considered “contested" and is assigned to a Matrimonial Judge in the Family Division. Depending on the county the Judge will schedule an in-person or telephone Case Management Conference. The Case Management Conference helps the Court to identify the issues and schedule deadlines for information exchange, experts reports as to financial or custody issues and any other information that may be necessary to help either resolve the case or prepare for a trial. This may occur several times until resolution depending on the Judge.
Prior to the conference, each party completes a Case Information Statement (CIS). This is a financial document that sets forth all income, asset and debt information.
Either party may retain the use of experts, such as forensic accountants or mental health professionals, to assist the Court in rendering decisions in custody or parenting-time disputes or in financial issues.
To resolve interim issues during the divorce action, either party may file a Notices of Motion for Pendente Lite relief. These issues may pertain to support and/or visitation. Motions are filed 24 days in advance of a scheduled motion hearing date set by the Court, which is known as oral argument. Another interim tool are Orders To Show Cause. This may be filed in cases of emergencies, such as a party taking children out of state or mortgage foreclosure issues that will result in irreparable harm. Each party is entitled to “Discovery" of the other side as to any contested issues. Discovery includes the answering of Interrogatories, Depositions, Appraisals and evaluations.
After completion of discovery the contested financial case should be scheduled for a Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel (MESP). MESP is a valuable settlement tool where volunteer attorneys make recommendations to assist in settlement of the case. It is confidential and can be very productive in helping achieve a settlement. Often times if the case is settled, a divorce will be granted the same day. If the case still remains unresolved the parties must attend Economic Mediation. This is a settlement tool as to financial issues with an experienced Matrimonial Attorney. In the event the parties cannot settle the case, a Trial will be scheduled. Testimony is taken to decide the issues and evidence submitted to the Judge. This can vary in time and expense depending on the disputed issues for the Court to determine.
There is no such thing as an "easy" divorce, as the process is typically very emotional. Because each case is unique, it is wise to at least consult with an attorney, especially in cases involving the distribution of assets and child custody, to at the very least get a basic understanding of the issues involved in the case.