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10 Common Steps in New Jersey Divorce Proceedings

1. File the Complaint for Divorce and Answer and Counterclaim

The divorce process is initiated by filing the Complaint for Divorce and upon return of the filed Complaint with a court assigned docket number, the Complaint for Divorce is served upon the other party. That party then has thirty-five (35) days to file any responsive pleadings such as an Answer and Counterclaim. Please note, being designated as Plaintiff and/or Defendant in a divorce proceeding is irrelevant.

2. Case Management

After the Answer and Counterclaim is filed, the Court schedules the matter for a Case Management Conference which is generally resolved by consent of the attorneys involved and which is simply outlining the process for the discovery needed and is specific to the case. For example, whether house appraisals are needed, custody evaluations, etc. This Order sets out a time line for your divorce with the hope that you proceed within the time outlined therein. Often times, this Order generates the Court listing the matter for Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel (explained below) and possibly your trial date.

3. Case Information Statements

One of the most important documents in a divorce is the Case Information Statement which is a financial document that outlines your income, assets, liabilities and overall lifestyle which is the touchstone of any matter regarding support. Case Information Statements can be filed at any time after the Complaint for Divorce, however, the Case Management Order will specific a due date if one has not been previously supplied.

4. Discovery

Discovery is the mechanism used to evaluate the merits of the issues raised by the parties, such as exchanging tax returns, income information, credit card statements, bank records, and proof of ownership as to houses, vehicles, etc. The purpose of discovery is to have all of the relevant information exchanged and to be evaluated by the attorneys in negotiating a resolution or proceeding with a trial. In short, it is the evidence relied upon to proof of disprove certain contested issues. Please note that the discovery time frame is also used to secure any experts such as a custody expert, a house appraiser, or a forensic valuation.

5. Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel (MESP)

As referenced above, New Jersey uses a form of alternate dispute resolution which is called Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel. The purpose of the Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel “MESP”, this is a mandatory program designed to assist in facilitating settlement between the litigants. The program requires counsel and clients to appear before experienced attorney volunteers (i.e., they are not paid for their time, but give it as a service to the court), known as “panelists,” who practice in the county where your case is venued and whom are familiar with issues such as those presented in your matter as well as reasonably familiar with how the judge assigned to your case will likely decide all disputed issues if the matter should go to trial. Typically, the attorneys for the parties initially meet with the MESP panelist(s) (usually two, but sometimes one) without clients present. During this time, the attorneys explain their client's respective positions as provided generally in a written position paper prepared and submitted in advance of the MESP appearance. The attorneys then leave the room and the panelists (if there is more than one) confer with each other with a view toward making recommendations as to how, in their experienced opinions, all disputed issues might be resolved. You and your spouse are then free to accept, reject or modify the panelists' recommendations with a further view toward settling your matter.

6. Economic Mediation

If your matter is not resolved at Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel, some counties require mandatory attendance at economic mediation and other counties simply recommend and/or counsel agrees to attend Economic mediation in an effort to resolve the matter absent the need for a trial. Although economic mediation can be done at any time during the course of a divorce proceedings can be done at any time but is often more successful when done after the parties’ have exchanged relevant discovery, are in receipt of any expert reports, and have made an effort during Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel. Economic mediation is often attended by both parties and their respective counsel as a mediator is not in the position to provide advice as to the recommendations they make.

7. Trial

Ultimately, if there is no resolution at economic mediation, the parties will be scheduled for a trial which is generally more than one day, not always consecutive, and which can be quite expensive with consideration of the trial preparation needed, attendance and court, preparation of the witnesses, and the expenses incurred in preparing and proceeding with trial.

That being said, absent an agreement by the trial date, the matter proceeds with a trial and the assigned Judge will render the final decision and enter the Final Judgment of Divorce which concludes the divorce proceedings.

As outlined above, the New Jersey divorce process, when contested (which means there is no agreement on the issues, not the cause of action), can be a very lengthy and complicated process. Therefore, it is important to have the guidance and representation from an experienced divorce attorney to guide you through this process, ensuring your rights are protected, and minimizing the cost of any post-judgment (after the divorce) issues because it wasn’t addressed properly the first time. If you are going through a divorce or contemplating divorce, contact Kelli M. Martone, Esq., of the Martone Law Group, LLC, at 856-610-6700 or through the website at www.martonelawgroup.com.