As a New Jersey Divorce Lawyer, I am asked, literally on a daily basis, “how long will my divorce case last?” My first answers is, “well, the more you and your spouse disagree, the longer your case shall take to resolve. I then further explain that the more complicated the issues in your case are, it is likely that your divorce case shall take longer. More often than not, these issues involve alimony and child custody matters. However, there are many other examples of what can take a NJ Divorce from simple to complicated. One example is when one or both spouses are self-employed. Another common issue is when “exempt” assets have, or may have been commingled into the marital estate. Of course, when the parties have a large amount of assets, it is almost inevitable that the case shall take some time to be resolved.
Early in New Jersey Divorce litigation is a court event known as a Case Management Conference, which results in a Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey executing a Case Management Order. At this time, the case is given a “Track,” depending upon how complicated it is anticipated the case shall be. Typically, the cases are divided into four categories: priority, complex, expedited, and standard.
If your case is categorized as a priority case, it probably is because it involves contested custody or parenting time issues pursuant to rule 5:1-4(a)(1).
Pursuant to rule 5:1-4(a)(2), if your case is categorized as a complex case, it probably appears likely that it will require a disproportionate expenditure of court and litigant resources in preparation for trial and at trial. This is usually because of the number of parties involved, the number of claims and defenses raised, the legal difficulty of the issues presented, the factual difficulty of the subject matter, or the length and complexity of discovery. Of course, if one than one of these issues is present, the case will appear to be more complex for the judge to decide.
If your case is categorized as an expedited case, it is most likely because it can be tried quickly with minimal pretrial proceedings, including discovery. Pursuant to rule 5:1-4(a)(3), a dissolution action can be assigned to the expedited track if (a) there is no dispute as to either the income of the parties or the identifiable value of the marital assets and no issue of custody or parenting time has been raise; (b) the parties have been married less than five years and have no children; (c) the parties have entered into a property settlement agreement; or (d) the action is uncontested.
If your case is categorized as a standard case, it is because it does not exhibit any of the qualities of a priority case, complex case, or expedited case.
The judge who presides over your particular case will make a prior determination as to how he or she should categorize your case. It is a judge’s responsibility to assign each case to a category after thoroughly evaluating the provided case information statement sheets and other necessary forms. Pursuant to rule 5:1-4(b), the family presiding judge makes his track assignments as soon as practicable after all parties have filed family case information statements or after a case management conference is held, whichever is earlier. The track assignment does not precede the filing of the first responsive pleading in the action. Additionally, when the presiding judge determines the track assignment, due consideration is given to an attorney’s request for that assignment. If all the attorneys involved agree on the categorization of a particular case, then the case is not assigned to a different category except for good cause shown and after giving all attorneys the opportunity to be heard. Furthermore, pursuant to the rule, if it is not clear from an examination of the information provided by the parties which track assignment is most appropriate, the case is assigned to the track that affords the greatest degree of management.
Finally pursuant to subsection (c) of rule 5:1-4, an action may be reassigned to a track other than that specified in the original notice to the parties either on the court’s own motion or on application of a party. Such application for reassignment can be made informally to the presiding judge, unless told otherwise, and should detail the reasons for wanting the reassignment.
In a case where the case management conference comes earlier than filing case information statements, judges will assign each case to a category based upon the information gathered from the conference. Within thirty days of the last pleading, the court will set aside a day to conduct a case management conference. This conference is typically done over the phone and the responsible attorney participates as well.
When dealing with priority and complex cases, the initial case management conference is to be held within thirty days after the expiration of the time for the last permissible responsive pleading or as soon as possible thereafter as is practicable, keeping in mind also the number of parties involved and if any parties were impleaded along the way. Pursuant to rule 5:5-7, after the conference takes place, the court enters an initial case management order fixing a schedule for initial discovery, requiring other parties to be join if necessary, narrowing the issues in dispute, and scheduling a second case management conference to be held after the close of the first phase of discovery. Most importantly, the second case management conference will set a firm trial date where all contested issues will be resolved.
Similarly, when dealing with expedited and standard cases, the initial case management conference is to be held within thirty days after the expiration of the time for the last permissible responsive pleading. A distinguishing feature in comparison to priority and complex cases, though, is that the attorneys actually responsible for the prosecution and defense of the case participate in the case management conference. After the conference takes place, the court will enter a case management order fixing a discovery schedule and firm trial date pursuant to rule 5:5-7(b). Moreover, additional case management conferences could potentially be held in the court’s discretion and for good cause shown on motion or a party’s request.