Any legal dissolution of marriage starts with filing for divorce. Depending on whether spouses opt for a contested or uncontested divorce, their preparation stage and the court proceedings are different in many aspects. How much money they are willing to spend on the divorce process also shapes their actions. However, the essential steps necessary to legally end a marriage are similar, with or without an attorney.
Step 1. Make sure you qualify
New Jersey has minimum residency requirements for the spouse seeking a divorce: he or she must have been a resident of the state for at least 12 consecutive months to be allowed to file for a divorce.
The no-fault grounds for divorce in New Jersey include: (1) an 18-month separation and (2) “irreconcilable differences” that have lasted for at least six months.
The fault-based grounds for divorce cover abuse, adultery, imprisonment, alcoholism, desertion, and a handful of other reasons rarely used. These grounds must be proven in court with the burden lying on the plaintiff (petitioner or the filing spouse). For example, the other spouse’s absence must last for at least 12 consecutive months to divorce for desertion.
All the grounds for divorce require the filing of different court forms.
As a side note, spouses who choose not to play the blame game and pursue a no-fault divorce, also known as an uncontested divorce, can represent themselves in court. Uncontested divorces are usually a straightforward, streamlined process in New Jersey where spouses agree on the terms and file the paperwork.
In contrast, a contested divorce is impossible without the assistance of a family attorney.
Step 2. Preparing the paperwork
If the plaintiff hires a lawyer to do the filing, they only sign the divorce papers and attend the hearings according to the schedule.
If the plaintiff opts for self-representation, also known as Do-It-Yourself divorce, he or she obtains the court forms according to the grounds for divorce. The forms can be obtained through the New Jersey Court website or the local court. The plaintiff should make two copies of all divorce documents. In case of questions, New Jersey has self-help centers at all local courts. However, the staff gives no legal advice.
Step 3. Filing a Divorce Complaint
The plaintiff files the forms at the local court in the county where their spouse resides and pays the filing fees ($300 for the plaintiff and $175 for the defendant). If the plaintiff has (1) income at or below 150 percent of the current poverty level and has less than $2,500 in cash or savings, the clerk will accept a fee waiver request. If the plaintiff qualifies, the court will waive court filing and copy fees.
The court clerk will accept and stamp the forms, leaving the original and returning the copies. Now the divorce case is officially open.
Step 4. Serving the spouse
Under New Jersey law, the divorce papers must be hand-delivered to the defendant (the respondent or the non-filing spouse). However, the plaintiff cannot serve the defendant personally. Either a process server or sheriff is hired to perform service and obtain signed proof of service and acceptance of service. These forms must also be filed with the court.
When the defendant is missing, on active duty in the armed forces, or out of the country, there are other options for process service, but the plaintiff needs to request permission from the court.
Step 5. Waiting for the Answer
The defendant has to respond within 35 days. Depending on whether the defendant agrees or objects to the terms of the complaint, there are three options to choose from: (1) object to child custody and support, or alimony, or property division; (2) object to the dissolution of marriage itself; (3) suggest a new reason for divorce.
Step 6. Agreeing on the Terms of Divorce
New Jersey has no waiting period for couples after the defendant’s answer is filed. However, divorce is finalized only when the spouses settle their parental responsibilities and split their marital property. Some families agree on spousal support. All their agreements on children and property are memorialized in the settlement agreement.
At this point, if spouses haven’t arrived at an understanding yet but are unwilling to go to trial, they can use mediation. If there is no disagreement and the spouses just want to do it right, they need to hire experts to help them handle their financial matters. Dividing life insurance and pensions during a divorce is tricky and cannot be done correctly without a financial advisor. To manage the transition to a new life for both parents and children, New Jersey courts mandate parents to take a $25 parenting class.
Step 7. Attending a Court Hearing
In case of dispute, the court participates and helps the spouses agree on the issues of the settlement agreement. However, DIY divorce is an option for spouses who can peacefully resolve their issues out of court.
At a court hearing, the judge reviews the terms of the agreement, and if everything is correct and the rights of the involved are met, the divorce is approved, ending the marriage.
Web-based divorce companies assist divorcing spouses in preparing the documents quickly. To apply, a user must first answer qualifying questions on the website. If they qualify for an uncontested divorce, the company will send them a more detailed questionnaire. The company will complete the state-specific court forms using the information from the questionnaire and send downloadable or hard copies of the forms to the client to file with the local court. Using Internet divorce services to complete an application for divorce online is a fast and inexpensive way to get the ball rolling.
Cutting down the Cost of Divorce
Divorce can be expensive, not only in terms of money. Getting a divorce is stressful and uncertain. However, the state gives soon-to-be-ex spouses some leverage to tread lightly and have as easy a transition as possible. Use the available best practices and any help you can get.