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What to Do After You Receive a Divorce Complaint in New Jersey

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

Receiving a summons and complaint for divorce can be an unsettling experience, even if you know it’s coming. And if you aren’t aware that your spouse is seeking a divorce, being served with divorce papers can leave you feeling like you’ve had the proverbial wind knocked out of you. 

As overwhelming as the emotional impacts of receiving a divorce complaint may be, and as many unanswered questions may immediately surface, it’s essential to protect your legal rights at this time. 

If your spouse has filed a complaint for divorce in New Jersey, a few things should immediately move to the top of your to-do list.

Hire a trusted divorce attorney

If you’ve been served with divorce papers and you haven’t already hired a divorce or family law attorney, this should be the first item on your to-do list, especially if receiving the complaint was a surprise to you.

You’ll spend a lot of time working with your lawyer during your divorce, so hiring an attorney you feel you can trust and get along with is important. Don’t feel pressure to sign on with the first lawyer you talk to—it’s not wrong to have an initial consultation/strategy meeting with a few attorneys. 

The key is to make sure you find the right combination of experience and personality for you. If that’s your first meeting or your last, it doesn’t matter as long as you feel comfortable.

No matter who you end up selecting to represent you, remember that decisions such as child custody arrangements, spousal and child support payments, parenting time agreements, and asset distribution have long-term consequences.

You’ll also face a number of legal questions, such as:

  • Whether or not you want to file responsive pleadings and if so, which type 
  • Whether alternative dispute resolution process such as mediation might work for you
  • What your primary goals are for your settlement

It can be difficult to navigate these—and many other—questions without sound legal advice from an experienced lawyer. A legal advocate who understands the nuance of divorce law can help you get a settlement agreement that protects your rights and sets you up for success in the future.

Seek support from friends and family

Support from a strong network of trusted friends and family is key to protecting your mental and emotional health (and your legal positions!) during this transition period. 

While it can be tempting, try not to lash out at your soon-to-be ex, whether virtually or in person. Social media posts, texts, and remarks made in moments of frustration, anger, or surprise may be fodder later on. Keeping things civil can only serve your short and long-term interests.   

Instead of reacting in the moment, make a list of people you trust to help you navigate the emotional, mental, and logistical decisions you will have to make over the next several months. Brainstorm the ways you could use support. For example, if the idea of shared parenting time stresses you out, enlist a close friend to plan regular activities during that time. If you need help managing the new logistics of daily life, identify tasks you need help with and share them with your support group. 

Don’t forget—the size of your support system doesn’t matter as much as the quality. Encouragement from one reliable friend is far better than no support at all.

Decide how to respond to the complaint

If you have been served divorce papers, you are considered the defendant in your case. Under New Jersey law, you have 35 days from the date of service to respond to the complaint. 

Regardless of how you choose to respond, which, as discussed above, should be done with the advice of a trusted attorney, it’s necessary to do so within the 35-day deadline. 

Failure to respond may result in a default judgment against you, which means you could have very little say in the outcome of your case, including how the courts decide custody, alimony, support, and equitable distribution. While there are ways for you to have a default judgment vacated, it’s best to get ahead of the matter. 

Your options for a response include:

1. File an answer

Filing an answer to a complaint simply means you (and your lawyer) respond to the claims made in the original divorce petition. If there are inaccurate claims in the complaint, you can contest them in your answer.

2. File an answer and counterclaim

Filing a counterclaim does more than dispute facts from the divorce petition—it creates your own complaint for divorce, and alleges the grounds under which you want to be divorced. These can include adultery, cruelty, desertion, substance abuse, imprisonment, etc.) 

In addition to answering the claims in the original complaint, you raise your own claims, and ask the court to grant you relief based on those claims. 

3. File an appearance

If you don’t want to file a counterclaim but do want a judge to hear from you before final decisions are made regarding child custody, parenting time, support payments, or equitable asset distribution, your attorney will file a notice of appearance. 

This reserves your right to be heard in the case on the issues themselves, but does not assert your own grounds for divorce and doesn’t answer the claims in the complaint.

Before responding to the complaint, consult an attorney to ensure you understand the paperwork you’ve received and your options regarding your case.

However you choose to respond to the complaint, you need to serve your spouse (the plaintiff) with your response. You can hire a process server, arrange to send them to your ex’s attorney, or send them via certified mail. Be sure to keep proof of service, as your spouse only has 20 days to reply to your response.

After the response is filed

Once your response to the divorce complaint has been filed, you and your spouse must each fill out and submit a required document—the Case Information Statement.

The Case Information Statement, or CIS, is a legal court filing containing the financial details of your marriage. It includes information about your:

  • Salaried income
  • Income from entitlement programs 
  • Joint and individual lifestyle expenses
  • Lifestyle expenses for your children
  • Retirement savings and investments
  • Insurance costs
  • Owned property
  • Loan debt 
  • “Special problems” or other extenuating circumstances unique to your family

Because it’s used in part to help determine support payment obligations and plays a significant part in asset distribution, your CIS must be completely accurate. You’ll want to be honest with your legal representation, which is another reason to choose a lawyer you can trust and feel comfortable with.

You don’t have to go through divorce alone—Jacobs Berger can help

If you’ve been served a summons and complaint for divorce, the attorneys at Jacobs Berger are here to help. Our solutions-oriented practice focuses on reducing the stress of divorce proceedings so you can focus on building your new life.

Contact us today to schedule your strategic planning session.

Contact Our Morristown Attorneys Today

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.

To schedule a strategic planning session with one of our experienced team members regarding your particular case, please contact us online or through our Morristown, NJ office at (973) 354-4506.