What to expect during the divorce process in New Jersey

There are several steps to a New Jersey divorce. These rules give both sides the chance to fight for the property they want, and protect their procedural rights.

Just as no two people are alike, so too is nearly every divorce case unique in some way. Some divorce cases are relatively fast and amicable, with the former spouses agreeing on all major issues like division of property and child custody. Other times, the exes contest each other on everything, and the case drags out for a long time. Many other cases fall somewhere in the middle, with some important issues that need to be hammered out or decided by the judge.

New Jersey law puts a structure on all divorce cases in order to make them as procedurally fair as possible. For those considering divorce, or know someone who is going through one, we will provide an overview of the divorce process.

Filing for divorce

From a legal perspective, the first thing someone who has decided to get a divorceneeds to do is file a complaint for divorce with the court. New Jersey provides four grounds for divorce. One of the most common is "no fault" divorce. Traditionally, a spouse had to provide a specific reason to end their marriage. Those reasons -- adultery, extreme cruelty and desertion -- are still on the books today.

No fault divorce, on the other hand, simply allows couples who no longer wish to be together to end their marriage. The law allows no fault divorce when the couple has lived apart for at least 18 months, or when one spouse claims "irreconcilable differences."

That second provision only became law in 2007. To qualify, the spouses must have experienced the irreconcilable differences for at least six months; the differences must be serious enough to end the marriage; and there cannot be a reasonable prospect of reconciliation.

After filing

Once one spouse has filed a valid divorce complaint, the other spouse has the option to file an answer. This allows him or her to contest some of the contents of the complaint, or ask the court to settle disputes, like how to divide up the marital property.

Once the court has received the complaint and the answer, often the next step is a conference between the parties. This usually entails you and your attorney meeting with your spouse and their attorney. The two sides try to negotiate a solution to any disagreements the spouses may have.

If the parties succeed, the attorneys prepare a settlement agreement. If not, the spouses may be referred to an Early Settlement Panel, which is made up of a pair of family law attorneys. These attorneys will attempt to help the spouses resolve their outstanding disagreements.

In the event that the spouses cannot agree on a settlement agreement, their divorce will go to trial. How long it will be before the case is actually heard depends on several factors, including how substantial the couples' assets are. The judge may need appraisals of some property to determine its worth before he or she can begin dividing up the assets. In New Jersey, the court must divide marital property "equitably," which means in a "fair and reasonable" manner -- not necessarily 50/50.

There is more to divorce, including possible child custody and support matters. And readers should keep in mind that there are alternatives to going to court, like mediation. But this may give our readers a general idea of what to expect if they ever go through divorce.