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New Jersey Divorce Litigation Steps - A General Overview

Step 1— The initial preparation and filing of Complaint for Divorce

The first step in litigating your divorce is the preparation and filing of a pleading known as the Complaint for Divorce. The filing of a complaint for divorce is a request for the court to grant a judgment of divorce, and usually includes the "grounds" for the divorce and a "wherefore" clause.

The "grounds" for divorce is basically the legal basis as to why you want a divorce. The "wherefore" clause outlines to the court the relief that you are seeking.

In addition to the actual Complaint for Divorce there are technical requirements that must be met. An Affidavit of Insurance Coverage must be filed. This form that identifies your existing insurances, including Life insurance; Medical insurance; Automobile insurance; Homeowner's insurance etc.

Also a Confidential Litigant Information Sheet must be provided with your Complaint. This form advises the Court of various personal identifying characteristics about you, including: Date and place of birth, Social security number, Driver's license number, Gender etc.

Step 2 – The preparation of the Case Information Statement

Upon the filing of the divorce complaint, if not sooner, you should prepare your "Case Information Statement" (CIS). The Case Information Statement (CIS) is a key document used in the negotiations leading ultimately to a settlement of the case. In the event that your case does not settle the CIS is one of the most critical documents in trial.

The CIS requires you to itemize your income and monthly family living expenses.

The CIS also requires that you list all assets and liabilities, whether owned separately by you or by your spouse, or jointly.

The last page of the CIS gives you an opportunity to list special problems that should be brought to the attention of the Court. I have found that many people do not take advantage of this space, and I strongly encourage my clients to spend some time thinking about certain issues that the Court should focus on and list them here, in summary fashion.

When completing your Case Information Statement, you should provide your attorney with W2's, 1099s, paystubs etc.

Step 3— Case Management Conference

Once the Complaint for Divorce has been filed the other party must be served with the divorce papers. Upon your spouse being served and filing responsive pleadings, the court will schedule a Case Management Conference. This conference is generally done with counsel in the Judge's Chambers. However, sometimes this is done on the record in the Courtroom. The purpose of the Case Management Conference is to assess the issues of your divorce, establish dates for the exchange of documents (discovery), outline the experts that may be required and who will be responsible for the payment of same.

Case Management Conferences also generally set a date for an Early Settlement Panel (ESP).

Step 4— Discovery

Discovery is the process by which both parties exchange necessary information. This generally includes interrogatories and a notice to produce. A notice to produce often requires production of bank and credit card statements, business records, etc. The notice to produce is basically a formal request for the exchange of physical documents.

Interrogatories are a set of written questions that you may be called upon to give detailed answers in writing.

The case management order may also provide a time as to when deposition will take place. In some cases, a party may be questioned under oath about issues related to the divorce. The deposition testimony is recorded and a transcript can be made available for later use in the court proceedings.

Step 5— Early Settlement Panel (ESP)

During the divorce process your attorney will most likely be participating in settlement discussions to resolve the divorce case so that you can efficiently conclude your case and settle the terms of your Matrimonial Settlement Agreement.

If, however, divorce case is not settled by the ESP date scheduled by the court, you will be required to appear before the early settlement panel with your attorney.

The ESP is a mandatory program that requires litigants and their counsel, to appear before volunteer attorney (usually one or two) known as "Panelists" which have no stake in the outcome of your matter. These Panelists practice in the county and are experienced in the law and with the judges presiding in the county. After listening to each party's counsel present their client's case (the Panelists usually only consider financial issues; i.e. child support, alimony, equitable distribution, tax and apportionment of litigation expenses) the Panelists offer an objective opinion as to how they believe the issues presented can be resolved without resorting to further court proceedings.

While the Panelist' opinions should be considered in the vein in which they are offered, i.e. good faith recommendations as to how to settle your case without further delay and incurrence of expense, they are made in confidence (i.e., not made known to the judge assigned to your matter --- unless consented to by counsel) and not binding in any way upon the parties. You are free to accept, modify any or all of, or reject the Panelists' recommendations.

In the event a settlement is reached on the ESP date or at any point during the course of negotiations, in most cases, the terms will be reduced to writing in the form of a Matrimonial Settlement Agreement and an uncontested divorce hearing will be scheduled before the Judge. If a settlement is not reached, a case management conference will be held with counsel and the judge assigned to your case at the conclusion of the ESP in order to resolve any additional discovery concerns and to schedule further proceedings including perhaps economic mediation, settlement conference, and trial dates.

Step 6— Economic Mediation

If you do not resolve your issues at the early settlement panel, you will very likely be required to attend economic mediation with your attorney in an effort to resolve any outstanding issues.

Step 7— Intensive Settlement Conference

The court will often ask both parties and their attorneys to return to court for an all-day settlement conference prior to trial. The primary goal of an intensive settlement conference is to avoid the necessity of trial.

Step 8 — Trial

A very small percentage of divorce cases actually are concluded by a full trial on all issues.

A trial is the final step in the divorce process assuming your matter is unable to be resolved prior to that date. At the trial, the judge will hear testimony from each party, experts, and witnesses before ultimately making a final decision. Barring any appeals of the decision, your divorce will be finalized upon the Judge issuing a decision after the conclusion of trial.