Divorce: An Introduction

Given the emotionally charged nature of divorce work, as well as the complexity of the issues sometimes presented, New Jersey divorce practice can be quite challenging. Frequently, prospective clients have no real understanding of what their rights or obligations may be or how the process itself unfolds. Oftentimes, prospective clients have been given well meaning but inaccurate legal advice from friends and family.

If you are contemplating divorce, it is highly advisable to seek advice from an experienced divorce lawyer. It is important that your lawyer tell you what you need to hear, which may not always be what you want to hear, so that you can make intelligent, informed decisions as the divorce process unfolds.

Divorce: A (Very) Brief Overview

A divorce case is initiated in New Jersey when one party files a Complaint for Divorce with the Court. The most frequently used ground for divorce in New Jersey is irreconcilable differences lasting at least six months prior to the date on which the Complaint is filed. After the Complaint for Divorce is returned from the Court with a docket number, it must then be served upon the other party, who in turn must file a responsive pleading with the Court within 35 days.

As the divorce case proceeds, financial documents, such as tax returns, recent paystubs, account statements, and pension information will be exchanged. Frequently, this process moves quicker if both parties are represented by attorneys, who will be aware of what documents are necessary and what documents are not. The parties will also exchange Case Information Statements, which are mandatory financial disclosures which detail all assets and liabilities of the marriage, as well as set forth the monthly expenditures of the parties. Through their attorneys or directly with each other, the parties may also engage in negotiations in an attempt to resolve any outstanding issues, such as equitable distribution of property, alimony, and custody, visitation and child support.

If the parties cannot reach agreement, they will be scheduled to appear in Court to meet with the Early Settlement Panel (ESP). The Early Settlement Panel consists of two volunteer attorneys selected from a rotating list of experienced divorce law practitioners who will listen to a brief recitation of your case from the attorneys representing you and your spouse. Ideally, the Early Settlement Panel date will occur after all discovery has been completed, but it is not unusual for at least some discovery to still remain outstanding. The Panelists will make recommendations to you and your spouse regarding how to best resolve any open issues between the two of you. The Panelists are frequently helpful in settling both the amount and duration of alimony to be paid. The recommendations should be reflective of how a Judge might rule in the event your case were to proceed to trial.

After the Panelists have made their recommendations, assuming a matter has not settled, the next step in most cases will be for the parties to attend post-ESP Economic Mediation. The Court promulgates a list of Mediators (mostly attorneys) who agree to volunteer two hours of their time in every case for which they are selected. The mediator will spend one hour of time reviewing any submissions the parties or their attorneys present; usually this involves forwarding the Mediator the client’s Case Information Statement as well as a brief position statement on all issues in dispute. If the parties are represented by attorneys, the attorneys almost always attend the mediation session with their clients.

After the first two hours of time, if the parties feel mediation is helpful and productive, they may continue the mediation, however they must agree to pay the mediator at the mediator’s regular hourly rate. In practice, the Mediation program has been tremendously successful in helping to resolve a large percentage of divorce matters. This is a testament to both the skill of the mediators as well as the divorce attorneys who work closely with the mediators to try to find an equitable middle ground on which all parties can meet. Most divorce attorneys have a “go to” list of mediators with whom they have worked with successfully in the past and with whom they have developed a professional rapport.

If ultimately, the parties still cannot reach agreement, their matter will be resolved by way of a trial before a New Jersey Superior Court Judge. It is important to note that due to the high cost incurred in terms of both counsel fees and time, very few cases actually proceed to trial. Trial dates in most counties in New Jersey are not continuous, meaning a three or four day trial could take place over the course of three or four months. It could take several weeks or even months once a trial is concluded before a decision is issued by the Court. In addition, the Judge hearing a divorce trial might have a number of other cases scheduled on the same day, meaning a litigant may be in Court for 8 hours, but only be in front of a Judge for 2-3 hours on a good day.

In some cases, rather than going to trial, the parties might agree to binding arbitration with a mutually agreed upon arbitrator as a hopefully speedier and more cost-effective way of resolving their matter.

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