Divorce can be an intimidating and mysterious process to one who has never gone through it. One of the most common questions that is posed to the attorneys at our law firm during an initial consultation is how long the divorce process takes and what the process entails. Many people are concerned with going to Court or even worse having a trial. Our lawyers understand that a divorce is not something one has to deal with everyday. Therefore, we have compiled a timeline that will explain the steps of the process in order. We hope that today’s blog, “A New Jersey Divorce, From Beginning to End,” will put you at ease and provide you a picture of what to expect during your divorce in the state of New Jersey.
- Complaint for Divorce: So you have decided that you want to file for divorce. Now what? In order to let the Court know you exist and that you want to end your marriage you must file a Complaint for Divorce. This document lets the Court know that you exist and that you want a divorce. Many people often ask me whether it matters which party files first. It does not matter. Considering that New Jersey is a no fault state, it makes no difference which party files for divorce first.
The Complaint for Divorce will include basic information that will give the Court an idea of what you are looking for. It will have the names of the parties, the date of the marriage, where the parties live, how long the parties have lived in New Jersey and the names and ages of any children born during the marriage. The Complaint also states the grounds for the divorce, which today is almost always “irreconcilable differences.” Finally, the Complaint requests certain relief from the Court. For example, if a party would like child support, alimony and attorney’s fees the Complaint for Divorce must ask for it. Often times people are not sure of the relief they are seeking or what they ultimately want. My advice is to include everything you could possibly want because if it is not asked for in the initial Complaint, it cannot be requested later on.
Once the Complaint is prepared the client signs off on it and it is sent to the Court for filing. The Court then stamps the Complaint “filed” with the date it was received and assigns what is called a docket number. This number identifies your case and will be on every document that is submitted to the Court in relation to your matter.
Once the Complaint is filed and we received the filed copy from the Court, it is ready to be served on the other party. In New Jersey personal service is required. If the other party already has an attorney, then the attorney can be served instead of the other party. Once the Complaint is served, the other party has 35 days to file an Answer and Counterclaim. If they do not file an Answer and Counterclaim, you may file for “default”, which means that you served the other party, they ignored it and now you are asking the Judge to enter the relief requested in the Complaint. More often than not an Answer and Counterclaim are filed and the process moves on.
- Answer and Counterclaim: An Answer and most of the time a Counterclaim is filed by the other party in response to the Complaint for Divorce. The Answer either admits or denies the allegations that are made in the Complaint for Divorce. Often times the other spouse files a Counterclaim for Divorce with their Answer. This is similar in nature to the original Complaint for Divorce filed, wherein your spouse also requests relief from the Court. In addition, if you decide that you do not want to go through with the divorce and you withdraw your Complaint for Divorce, the litigation will continue if your spouse filed a Counterclaim. The Answer and Counterclaim, lets the Court know that your spouse has received the Complaint and that he or she is engaged in the process.
- Answer to Counterclaim: Just as your spouse responded to your Complaint for Divorce, you will need to respond to the Counterclaim for Divorce. Your Answer to Counterclaim will admit or deny the allegations made in your spouse’s Counterclaim and will preserve your rights.
- Parent’s Education Program (if children are named in the pleadings): Once a Complaint and Answer are filed with the Court, parties with children will automatically receive Notice from the Court that they have been scheduled for the Parent’s Education Program. This program provides information to the parties and encourages cooperation between the parents giving them an understanding of the impact of divorce on children.
- Case Management Conference / Case Management Order: Once a Complaint and Answer have been filed the Court will also schedule an initial meeting with the Judge. This is called a Case Management Conference. The main purpose of this conference is for the Judge to set out a timeline of when certain things must happen in the case. This is done differently throughout the State. Some counties require that the clients be present for the Case Management Conference while others allow the attorneys to submit a Consent Case Management Order that the Judge signs. This alleviates the need to appear in Court for this basic initial step. The Order will set out what issues there are between the parties, a time by which he Case Information Statement needs to be filed as well as when Discovery and any appraisals need to be completed by. This is a Court Order so the due dates prescribed by the Order are to be taken seriously.
- Case Information Statement: Both parties in a divorce action are required to submit a Case Information Statement (CIS) with the Court. This allows the Court and the other side the opportunity to review the finances of the parties. The CIS includes information regarding a party’s job, salary, insurance, monthly finances, assets, bank accounts, credit cards and outstanding debts. It is important that this document be prepared carefully and accurately as the Court will rely on it to determine the finances of the parties. Attached to the CIS must be a party’s last three pay stubs and the most recent W-2 and tax return.
- Discovery: The term “discovery” refers to the ability of both parties to get information from the other side. During this stage of your proceedings, both sides try to collect all the information necessary for settlement discussions and/or trial. The most common form of discovery during a Divorce is what is called a “Notice to Produce Documents” and “Interrogatories”. The Notice to Produce Documents requests a party to supply certain documentation to the other side, most often bank account statements, credit card statements and things of that nature. Interrogatories are the chance for the other side to ask certain questions of the other party. Both parties are required to answer discovery demands and to provide the documentation requested within reason. A complete picture of the assets and income of both spouses is critical and necessary to discuss settlement in your matter.
- Appraisals: Often times parties own various assets such as real estate, art collections or an antique car for example. In order to determine what these assets are worth they must be appraised, especially if one party is seeking to buy out the other’s interest in the asset. Unless an appraisal is done the Court has no way to ascertain what the asset is actually worth. This is an important component when negotiating a financial settlement.
- Depositions: If after discovery and appraisals have been completed more information or a clarification of the information provided is needed, depositions may be scheduled. A deposition is the testimony of a party or witness under oath. Often a deposition is taken in an attorney’s office. At this time, your attorney will be with you along with your spouse and his/her attorney. A court reporter will administer the oath and record the questions and answers. A judge will not be present but may read or hear your answers later. During your deposition, the opposing attorney will ask the questions. Depositions are taken for at least three reasons:
- To find out what facts you / your spouse have in your actual knowledge and possession regarding the issues in the case. In other words, to determine what your story is now, not what it is going to be at trial.
- To pin you / your spouse down to a specific story so that you will have to tell the same story at trial.
- To catch you / your spouse in a lie to show at trial that you are not a truthful person and, therefore, that your testimony should not be believed, particularly on crucial points.
If your deposition is scheduled it should be taken very seriously as it can be used against you in Court at a later date.
- Early Settlement Panel: The Court favors settlement during a Divorce and attempts to help parties settle if at all possible. If after discovery and depositions your matter is not settled the Court will order you to attend Early Settlement Panel. During the Early Settlement Panel the parties and their attorneys will meet with two – three experienced volunteer attorneys that will hear the positions of both parties and give their recommendations as to how the matter should settle. This process is extremely valuable because it gives the parties the opportunity to hear the opinions of several experienced matrimonial attorneys who do not have an interest in the case, but who have been practicing long enough to know how a Judge may view certain issues. If you are unable to come to a resolution of the matter after Early Settlement Panel, the Court will give you one more chance to settle the case before Trial.
- Economic Mediation: If there is no settlement after Early Settlement Panel the parties are ordered to attend economic mediation with a neutral Court appointed mediator. Mediation is often successful in having the parties reach agreements on various issues as the mediator goes back and forth between the parties in an attempt to reach a compromise and balance between both parties’ positions. Mediation is much less costly than trial and the mediator will be a an experienced attorney who has dealt with the issues presented to them many times. If mediation is successful one of the parties’ will prepare a Settlement Agreement based upon the agreed upon terms and the parties will attend one final Court appearance to finalize the Divorce. If Mediation is unsuccessful then the matter will be scheduled for trial.
- Trial: It is very rare that a divorce matter will go to trial. In fact only about 1% of cases go to trial. It is always more cost effective to settle before trial because the costs of preparing for trial and trial itself are extremely high. An attorney is required to prepare a legal brief before trial and to submit all exhibits to be used. In addition, testimony questions must be prepared and several meetings will probably occur to prepare for the trial. At trial the parties and other witnesses, if necessary, will testify and evidence will be introduce for the Judge to review. At the conclusion of the trial the Judge will determine how all of the remaining issues will be resolved and the parties will have to live with the Judge’s decision. I always recommend that the parties attempt to work together to settle their matter as they know their circumstances much better than a Judge.
Please be mindful that while the foregoing is an accurate depiction of New Jersey civil procedure regarding a divorce in our state, approximately 98% of all divorce cases settle at some point prior to trial.
We hope the forgoing is helpful in providing a general understanding of the divorce process. If you have any other questions or need assistance with your divorce, please do not hesitate to contact our office for a consultation.
This blog was generated with the assistance of Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder, Esq., an associate attorney at the Law Offices of Edward R. Weinstein, L.L.C., who was just recognized by the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys as “10 Best” in Client Satisfaction as well as a 2015 Rising Star by Super Lawyers.