What to Know About Filing for Divorce in New Jersey

For many people, divorce marks a stressful time. It’s not simply the end of a relationship—there are also many logistical hurdles to navigate, such as divvying up finances and property, finding a new place to live, and determining custody and parenting time with children.

Filing for divorce can feel overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to make it less so. Having a good lawyer and a support network can help immensely—as can understanding what those initial steps look like going forward.

Below, we’ve put together what you need to know about filing for divorce in New Jersey.

First off—how does divorce work in New Jersey?

In New Jersey, all divorce agreements need to be executed by and filed with the courts to be finalized, but there are a couple of paths that can get you to that point.

On the first path, one spouse files paperwork for divorce with the court system, typically with the help of their attorney. This person is known as the plaintiff. The other spouse, the defendant, has 35 days to formally “respond” once they’ve been served the divorce papers.

There are several ways to respond, including filing an Appearance, an Answer, or an Answer and Counterclaim. Which option you should choose varies by circumstance, and talking with a lawyer about which is best for you is highly recommended.

The divorce then proceeds through the court system, which requires that the parties attempt various kinds of guided mediation and negotiation. If those methods fail to lead to a divorce agreement, then the parties and their attorneys may end up arguing the case before a judge, but this is a last resort.

The other path involves the parties reaching a divorce settlement agreement before filing for divorce. They do this by working through forms of guided mediation and negotiation, collectively known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Although this process takes place before filing with the courts, the divorcing parties typically rely on the legal guidance of divorce attorneys as they negotiate. Once they’ve reached an agreement and filed with the court, they can get approval and finalize their divorce. Many people choose the ADR path because it’s faster and less expensive than the court approach.

It’s important to understand that you aren’t stuck on one path. Divorcing parties progressing through the court system may also reach an agreement through mediation that can happen during the court process—and parties that started with ADR may find that they can’t reach an agreement on a particular aspect of their divorce and must instead progress through the courts.

Fault vs. no-fault divorces

No-fault divorce was introduced in New Jersey in 2007. Today, it’s how most NJ divorces proceed. Divorcing parties can file for no-fault divorce on grounds of “irreconcilable differences,” which doesn’t require that one spouse prove wrongdoing by the other as they’d have to do with a fault divorce.

A fault divorce means that one party is accusing the other of wrongdoing which is leading to the divorce—and the plaintiff has to prove, in court, that what they’re claiming is true. For instance, if one spouse accuses the other of adultery, they have to prove that adultery occurred—which includes naming who the adultery took place with and making that person a co-respondent when they file. If the plaintiff wants to proceed with a divorce on those grounds, the court actually has to hold a hearing on the grounds themselves in which evidence and testimony are presented by both sides.

It’s worth noting that even if someone “wins” a case of fault divorce by proving their spouse’s wrongdoing, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll receive more alimony or greater child custody.

Grounds for divorce in NJ

There are many grounds for divorce in New Jersey, including adultery, desertion, extreme cruelty, habitual drunkenness, and more.

However, the most common grounds when filing for divorce today are irreconcilable differences. Grounds of irreconcilable differences are used in no-fault divorces and essentially mean that the divorcing parties have tried to work through their differences and can’t.

To file under irreconcilable differences:

  • One or both spouses must have lived in New Jersey for at least twelve consecutive months
  • The irreconcilable differences must have been going on for at least six months
  • The irreconcilable differences must be the reason for the divorce
  • The parties must believe that they can’t reconcile their differences

What to do before filing for divorce

Once you file for divorce, the proverbial clock starts ticking. After you have your spouse served with the Complaint, they have 35 days to respond. Once they do, things will move forward. If they don’t respond, you have to request that default be entered against them, which includes filing paperwork, with proofs, as to why the things you’re requesting (alimony, child support, division of assets, etc.) should be granted by the court. We recommend making sure you have your ducks in a row before you file so that you’re prepared for the next steps.

1. Hire a good divorce attorney in NJ

When it comes to the divorce process, having a good lawyer matters—and not just in terms of having someone with legal experience in your corner.

The divorce process can be extremely stressful, and you don’t want your legal representation to make it more so. Look for a lawyer who understands the value of mediation and other alternative dispute resolution options in preserving family relationships and minimizing stress to you and your children—but who also has the knowledge to fight for you in litigated proceedings if needed.

2. Get your finances together

Before filing for divorce, take time to organize your finances. Once you file and the divorce process moves forward, it can be harder to get a clear picture.

Here are a few key steps we suggest:

  • Gather proof of income through pay stubs and tax returns
  • Evaluate joint accounts, and make sure you have a record of balances, account numbers, and logins. If you have separate accounts, whatever information you can readily access for your spouse is also helpful here
  • Make lists of monthly bills, property, and vehicles owned
  • Make copies of your mortgage and payment statements
  • Try to confirm the amount owed on any other debt, such as student loans
  • If you haven’t already established credit in your own name—as opposed to joint credit—open your own credit card, but do this carefully
  • If you need financial advice, find a trusted advisor before you take these steps

We also suggest reading through our financial FAQs here.

3. If children are involved, determine your child custody goals

In New Jersey, court decisions about child custody and parenting time are made according to what’s in the child’s best interest—which usually means the child having a relationship with both parents.

New Jersey courts prefer co-parents to have joint legal and some form of shared physical custody when reasonable. They look at factors such as the child’s health and safety, the child’s emotional needs, the co-parents’ level of cooperation, and practical concerns such as work schedules and travel time between parents’ homes.

Even in cases where one parent has sole custody, expect the other parent to receive parenting time with the child in almost every case.

Talk with your attorney to get a sense of what you can expect. That knowledge can be very helpful in informing your goals and strategy as you proceed.

How to file for divorce

When filing for a divorce, you can file alone or with the help of an attorney. However, even the state of New Jersey recommends that you work with an attorney. The court system involves complex rules and formal procedures—and while the court staff can answer questions, they can’t give you legal advice or even opinions.

As of 2020, filing for a divorce in New Jersey must be done electronically—but just because you can file for a divorce online, doesn’t mean you need to take that step alone. Instead, talk to an experienced divorce lawyer. They can guide you through the process and ensure that the information included when filing for divorce supports your goals.

Where to file for divorce

To file for divorce in New Jersey, one or both spouses must have been living in the state for at least twelve consecutive months. You can file in the county you live in. If you’re already living separately, you can also file in the county your spouse lives in.

Regardless of which county you’re filing for a divorce in, all divorce complaints must be filed electronically—and filing with the help of an attorney is strongly recommended.

How to serve the divorce papers in NJ

Once you’ve filed for a divorce with the courts, the court will assign a docket number to your divorce complaint and file it (the docket number is your case number). After the complaint has been filed, a copy of the paperwork will be returned to you and your lawyer.

After you receive your copy of the divorce papers, your spouse can be served. If your spouse already has an attorney, then it’s possible to serve them the papers through their attorney. Your attorney can also hire a process server to deliver the papers according to all the legal formalities—or you can ask your spouse to sign a legal statement, prepared by your attorney, that says they received the papers from you.

No matter which method is used, the process isn’t complete until an affidavit of service, which is a detailed legal account of how the papers were served, has been filed with the court. At this point, your spouse is considered served and they have 35 days in which to respond.

What if your spouse refuses to be served?

If your spouse refuses to be served the divorce papers by you—meaning that they refuse to sign a legal document saying you’ve given them the papers—and they refuse to have their attorney accept the papers to legally serve them, then your attorney can hire a process server.

The process server will locate and follow your spouse until they have a window in which to walk up to them and hand-deliver the papers. At this point, your spouse has been served.

What happens after divorce paperwork is served?

After divorce paperwork has been served and an affidavit of service has been filed with the court, the spouse who has been served (known as the defendant) has 35 days in which to respond to the divorce complaint.

The defendant can agree to the terms of the divorce settlement proposed in the divorce complaint, in which case the divorce is uncontested. (It’s also uncontested if they don’t respond at all.) The defendant can also choose to contest the terms of the divorce.

If both parties have already worked through the terms of their settlement agreement in ADR, then the divorce complaint may be uncontested because it’s functioning as the next official step in finalizing the divorce.

However, in cases where the parties haven’t already worked through a divorce agreement before one person files, they’ll proceed through the court process, including attempted mediation and negotiation, to try to come to an agreement on the terms.

Get the support you need throughout your divorce in NJ

At Jacobs Berger, our founding attorneys have over 25 years of combined experience as divorce lawyers in mediation (ADR) and litigated divorce. We work with clients in areas such as child custody, child support, alimony, equitable distribution, complex family structures, and more.

Our goal is not to tear down what you’ve built but to help you continue building to the future you want. We aim to use our experience-based knowledge and unique approach to reduce the amount of stress you and your family experience.

If you’re thinking about getting divorced, or are already in divorce proceedings, contact us. Our experienced divorce attorneys can guide you through the process—and help you move on to the future you want.

About the Author:

Sarah Jacobs is dedicated to protecting the interests of clients in family law proceedings. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney, and Qualified as a Mediator, Sarah possesses nearly 20 years of experience practicing law throughout the State of New Jersey. Together with partner Jamie N. Berger, Esq. their boutique Morristown family law firm is managed with the goal of providing high-quality service tailored to each client's individual needs. In her capacity as both a family law mediator and litigator, Sarah works with negotiation-minded clients in a cooperative setting. She is also a skilled litigator with the knowledge needed to take even the most complex cases to court, if necessary.

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