Being on the brink of divorce can be an intimidating and scary experience. If you find yourself seeking to initiate the divorce process, or you’ve suddenly been served with a complaint for divorce by your spouse, what’s next? The first step is to find an attorney. Many people have little to no familiarity with the court system and can easily be overwhelmed by the process. This is where having an experienced attorney like those at Skoloff & Wolfe, P.C. can benefit you. Once you have retained an attorney, what is the process like? What do you need to do? How long is this going to take? While a divorce has the possibility of being a long, arduous process, especially if a trial is needed, there are various steps throughout the process that provide the parties ample opportunities to settle and resolve most of, if not all of their issues. Below is a step by step outline of the procedure of obtaining a divorce so that you can be better prepared during your case.
The First Step of Divorce: Filing a Complaint
If you are the party seeking a divorce, one of the first landmarks during your case will be the filing of a complaint. If you are filing the complaint in your case, you will be referred to as the plaintiff going forward. A complaint is a document filed with the court that initiates your divorce case. It lays out the following:
- Identifying information, such as your address, date of marriage, and names and birthdates of your children if you have any. This information is simply provided to demonstrate that the New Jersey Superior Court has jurisdiction over your case – meaning that they are allowed to make a binding decision regarding your divorce.
- The grounds for divorce you are going to plead, meaning you need to provide the reason you are seeking a divorce.
- The relief you are seeking – for example custody, alimony, child support, or equitable distribution. Once your complaint is completed and filed with the court, you must serve it upon your spouse or their attorney in accordance with the court rules and the process truly begins.
Filing an Answer and Counterclaim
If you are the party who was served with a complaint by the spouse, you will be referred to as the defendant going forward. Upon receiving the complaint, you usually only have a certain timeframe, absent certain circumstances, to respond to the complaint. A defendant will have to file a document called an answer, which includes responses to all the statements contained in the complaint, within this timeframe.
Many attorneys also advise filing a document known as a counterclaim along with their answer. A counterclaim serves as a vehicle for the defendant to “double down” and seek a divorce against the plaintiff as well. It is constructed very similarly to a complaint, with the defendant providing personal and background information to determine jurisdiction, the grounds for divorce upon which they are basing their claim, and the relief they are seeking. Filing a counterclaim is advantageous for the defendant (and the plaintiff to some extent). If, for some reason, the plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed by the court for any multitude of reasons, instead of having to waste time and money on refiling for divorce, the case can continue based on the defendant’s counterclaim. Similarly, if the plaintiff has a change of heart mid-way through the divorce, but the defendant wishes to proceed with the divorce, filing a counterclaim at the inception of the case will save the parties time and money that would otherwise be wasted by refiling a complaint.
If you are the plaintiff, and the defendant never files an answer, a different procedure is followed, wherein the court will grant you a default divorce due to the lack of response from the defendant.
The Case Information Statement in a Divorce
After the initial complaint and answer are filed, the next landmark in your case will be the filing of a Case Information Statement. A Case Information Statement is a required filing for all parties in a divorce case. It includes a snapshot of your current economic situation, outlining the details of your income, taxes, spending habits both during the marriage and currently, and a list of all assets and liabilities you currently have. This document is incredibly important, as it is used by attorneys and the court in determining issues such as support and equitable distribution.
Discovery in a Divorce
Another big landmark of your case moving forward will involve seeking discovery from your spouse and providing responses to their discovery responses. This process allows you and your attorney to seek documents and information from your spouse regarding their income, bank accounts, and other assets that may impact the support and equitable distribution issues of your divorce. You can also seek any information that may be pertinent to a custody issue your case may have. You will have to work collaboratively with your attorney at this point, providing various financial documents and other information to adequately respond to your spouse’s discovery requests, as they will need to do the same to respond to your requests. Besides trial, this is likely one of the most labor-intensive portion of your divorce case.
Early Settlement Panel
The next major event that will occur in your divorce will be the Early Settlement Panel. This is a free service provided by the courts, wherein you, your attorney, your spouse, and their attorney, will all prepare a brief synopsis of the outstanding issues in your case and your positions on those issues, and submit them to a panel of three respected, volunteer lawyers in your county, who will review your submissions and provide their insight as to what they would expect to be the outcome of your case if it went to trial and was ultimately decided by the court.
This process allows both parties to hear the recommendations of multiple unbiased attorneys, with a wealth of experience in the field. Many times, hearing the recommendations from a third party can provide the clarity or motivation to settle a case.
Intensive Settlement Conference
If you and your spouse are still unable to reach an agreement at any point before, during, or after your Early Settlement Panel, the court will instruct you and your spouse, along with your attorneys, to attend an Intensive Settlement Conference at the courthouse, wherein your only purpose is to settle the case. The judge handling your case will be available to speak with your attorneys and even the litigants to help any way they can in resolving your case.
Mediation: Another Way to Settle a Divorce
Another avenue available to attempt to settle you divorce is mediation. Mediation can be done with or without attorneys present, and similarly to Early Settlement Panels, involve an unbiased attorney, or in some instances, even a retired judge, to help you resolve your case and reach a settlement. Mediations prove to be an effective way to resolve some of, if not all your issues, as the mediator is usually an experienced attorney or retired judge who has presided over numerous family law matters in their career. It provides the parties a chance to get an unbiased glance at what they can expect if they were to proceed to trial. Due to their experience, mediators can also help think of creative solutions to seemingly irresolvable issues in your case.
Arbitration: Another Method of Dispute Resolution for Divorce
Arbitration is another form of dispute resolution that provides the parties their own private litigation experience. Instead of going before a judge to make decision on their case, the parties can agree to enter arbitration, wherein a retired judge now in private practice, or even an experienced attorney serves the role of the judge in your case, and is given the authority to make binding decisions for your case, as a regular judge would if you proceeded to trial. Arbitration offers a variety of advantages, one of which is its expedience. The courts are simultaneously dealing with hundreds of cases at various points of litigation, making their time fleeting and precious. However, an arbitrator is likely not as busy or crowded as the court, allowing your case to receive the efficiency, quick results, and attention it requires.
If you were able to resolve all the outstanding issues during your Early Settlement Panel, your Intensive Settlement Conference, or at any other period before trial, either your attorney or your spouse’s attorney will likely draft a document known as either a Property Settlement Agreement or a Marital Settlement Agreement – two names for a document that has one purpose: outlining the terms of your settlement. This document will lay out the intricacies of your settlement, including but not limited to: how much alimony is being paid and for how long, the custody and parenting time schedule of your children, the child support amount to be paid, how certain assets and liabilities will be distributed, and how future issues will be resolved.
If you were unable to settle the entirety of your case, the next and final landmark is to proceed to trial on the remaining issues. Here, your divorce litigation attorney will present evidence and elicit testimony from witnesses and experts, establishing and defending your position on the remaining outstanding issues. Your spouse’s attorney will do the same for their positions. Upon the conclusion of trial, the judge for your case will take some time to review the evidence and testimony presented and issue an opinion deciding the outstanding issues of your case. Along with this opinion a Final Judgment of Divorce will be provided, which will officially mark the end of your divorce, and the beginning of the next chapter of your life.
Have an Experienced Divorce Attorney on Your Side to Navigate You Through This Process
As described above, the divorce process has the potential to be a long, emotional, draining process. However, the help and guidance of an experienced matrimonial attorney, like the ones at Skoloff & Wolfe, can make a world of difference. If you are thinking about filing for divorce or have recently been served with a complaint for divorce, contact the offices of Skoloff & Wolfe and speak with one of our experienced divorce attorneys today.