The Stages of a Divorce Process, As Seen in The Morris County Women’s Journal (Feb/March 2007)
Jan L. Bernstein, Esq.
Probably one of life’s most difficult decisions is whether to end a marriage. Many people are uncertain as to whether they ultimately will pursue a divorce, but nonetheless, want to understand the process for obtaining one. Knowledge is empowering and often helps you think more clearly as to how you wish to address the issues within your marriage. This article gives a general overview of the stages of a divorce case.
In the event that you do decide to proceed with obtaining a divorce, it is not automatically required that you file your Divorce Complaint, although there may be reasons why you wish to do so. Rather than immediately file, you may work with your attorney, or even with a mediator, to try to resolve the issues relevant to ending your marriage, such as custody, parenting time, alimony, child support, and equitable distribution. In this manner, you can try to reach a resolution without the stress of litigation deadlines looming overhead. During this time, you will likely exchange whatever information needed to have disclosure on financial issues. You can even work with mental health care professionals, if necessary, in order to resolve any conflicts with regard to custody and parenting time of your children. Once the settlement is reached, it is reduced to writing and executed by the parties and counsel. At this time, the parties can file the pleadings to obtain a divorce and seek enforcement of the agreement they have reached.
In the event that the circumstances of your case compel you to file your divorce pleadings immediately rather than pursue pre-filing settlement options as discussed above, then your case will proceed differently. The filing of the Divorce Complaint has an important impact. Generally speaking, it establishes the termination date of your marriage and is the date by which assets of a marriage are identified and valued. The filing of the Divorce Complaint also triggers many court deadlines for moving your case forward. For example, your spouse will have thirty-five days to respond to the pleading that you filed. From there, you and your spouse will prepare financial disclosure forms called Case Information Statements. These forms will be filed with the court.
You will also begin a process called “discovery” in which you and your spouse will have a certain fixed period of time to respond to formal requests for information. These demands are called “Interrogatories,” which are written questions to which you must respond, and a “Notice to Produce,” or a demand for documents, to which you will also have to respond by producing the documents requested in the demand. Depositions may also occur during this discovery period. Depositions consist of a series of questions that you and your spouse answer under oath. The attorney representing your spouse asks you the questions; your attorney questions your spouse. Furthermore, if there are contested issues of custody and parenting time and/or if there are assets that need to be valued, such as real estate or a business, those evaluations occur during this time period with the assistance of experts.
Once discovery is completed there are certain initiatives organized by the court to assist you in trying to reach a settlement of your case. One such initiative is called Early Settlement Panel, where approximately two attorneys volunteer their time to sit as panelists and hear from your counsel the merits of your positions in your divorce. At the conclusion of that presentation, the panelists will offer a non-binding and confidential assessment of how they would resolve your case based on their experience. If your case does not settle at Early Settlement Panel, then you are provided the opportunity to go on to Economic Mediation. During Economic Mediation, attorneys who are qualified mediators volunteer approximately two hours of their time to again hear from you and your counsel and try to help you reach a resolution of your open issues. With both Early Settlement Panel and Economic Mediation, your spouse and his/her attorney also present their position. At the conclusion of Economic Mediation you report back to the judge assigned to your case to advise the court of the status of your case. If at the end of Economic Mediation your case is still not settled, then the court will likely schedule an in-court settlement conference and/or a trial date.
The above offers merely a summary of the general process of a divorce. Subjective circumstances of an individual case can certainly cause a case to evolve in a variety of different directions. For example, a case involving a long-term marriage and an extensive asset base generally will be a more involved matter than a short-term marriage with relatively minor assets. A complicated custody dispute can also make a divorce more involved, although courts do prioritize custody matters and try to expedite those cases, preferably within a six month period of time tolling from the filing date of the Complaint for Divorce. It is also important to keep in mind that with the assistance of counsel and cooperation from the parties, even complicated matters can be solved expeditiously.