FAQ

1. What should I wear to court?
2. How long will my case take?
3. How much will it cost?
4. Can I win my case?
5. What are the grounds for divorce?
6. What is a no-fault divorce?
7. What is an uncontested divorce?
8. What happens at a divorce hearing?
9. Why do I have to go to a case management conference?
10. How much alimony is appropriate, and for how long?
11. What is Case Management and Why is it needed?

1. What should I wear to court?

Remember that a courthouse is a place of respect. While you do not have to wear expensive clothes, you should dress in a manner that shows respect for the system and the people who work in it. Remember also that the judge who will decide your case may pick up subtle signals from your attire and demeanor. Dress as you would for a job interview or a religious ceremony. Try to avoid any strong fashion statements – no low-cut blouses for women or overly short skirts, no sleeveless shirts or shorts for men, and try to cover up tattoos. We recommend you wear comfortable shoes (not sneakers) in case you have to stand around waiting for your case to be called.

2. How long will my case take?

Most cases settle before trial. The time it takes to settle or to reach trial will depend on the individual facts of each case. A time estimate can be provided on request. Generally, when the facts are complicated (numerous assets to value, questions as to a party’s income, etc.), or when one or both parties makes unrealistic demands, the litigation becomes prolonged.

3. How much will it cost?

The billing is explained in detail in a written retainer agreement that you will have an opportunity to read and discuss before signing. Every client receives a copy of the retainer agreement and all family law clients also receive the Statement of Client Rights and Responsibilities. An estimate of prospective cost will be provided free of charge upon request.

4. Can I win my case?

Success at trial depends on the facts, the law, and the presentation of the evidence to the trier of fact – in family law cases, that is a judge, and in most civil and criminal cases in Superior Court, it is a jury. You are entitled to be told the pro’s and con’s of your case and to be informed of the possible outcomes, but no attorney can guarantee a win. Clients are encouraged to ask questions and try to take a reasonable approach. Settlement is a way to take the uncertainty out of litigation and to have more control of the outcome.

5. What are the grounds for divorce?

Divorce can be granted in New Jersey upon an allegation of extreme cruelty, adultery, separation, desertion, deviant sexual conduct, institutionalization for 24 months, imprisonment for 18 months or voluntary addiction for 12 months or imprisonment of the other party for 18 months or longer.

6. What is a no-fault divorce?

A “no-fault” divorce is not necessarily quicker than a divorce granted on fault grounds. The difference is simply in the allegations of the complaint. A no-fault divorce is granted automatically upon proof of certain circumstances, such as separation for 18 continuous months with no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.

7. What is an uncontested divorce?

After the parties agree on the distribution of property, custody and visitation of children, and support, then the divorce becomes “uncontested.” The terms of settlement are usually set forth in a comprehensive written contract that both sides will help draft, review and revise. The written agreement, called a Property Settlement Agreement, is incorporated into the Final Judgment of Divorce.

8. What happens at a divorce hearing?

If a divorce is contested, there will be a trial in which witnesses (including the parties) will be called to testify and offer evidence. This is a lengthy and expensive process but is often unavoidable if the other side is not being reasonable in approaching settlement.

Even if a divorce is uncontested, the parties still must go before a judge to obtain a final judgment that dissolves the marriage. The judge is not interested in the messy details of why the parties are divorcing – the allegations of the complaint are acknowledged by reference and read silently by the judge. The most important thing that happens at the hearing is to identify the Property Settlement Agreement and testify that it is fair and reasonable under the circumstances. It may not be everything that both sides wanted but if it is perceived by the parties to be a fair and reasonable compromise of all issues that could have been raised in the divorce, it will be attached to the Final Judgment and it will have the full force and effect of a court order. Disobeying an agreement that is incorporated into the Judgment is not just a breach of contract, it could be a contempt of court. After the divorce is granted, the parties can obtain a certified copy of the judgment, with a gold seal indicating it is authentic. The certified copy is needed for proof of name change or to change beneficiaries on insurance policies, as well as for an annulment of marriage by a religious order.

9. Why do I have to go to a case management conference?

Some judges require the parties to attend the initial case management conference. A letter is provided from the court, “Why Case Management,” that explains the reasons in detail. The parties rarely say a word, but they stand at counsel table next to their attorneys during the conference, and watch as the judge sets deadlines. It is a chance to meet the judge who will handle your pre-trial motions (and possibly also the trial), to meet with the other side and discuss settlement, and to familiarize yourself with the layout of the courthouse in a relatively low-key setting.

10. How much alimony is appropriate, and for how long?

Alimony depends on several statutory factors, including the length of the marriage, the need of a dependent spouse, the other party’s ability to pay, the length of the marriage, the lifestyle of the family prior to divorce, the ages of the children, the age and health of the parties, all available sources of income and assets, reasonable debts and liabilities, other relevant factors unique to each case. There are no hard and fast rules, unlike child support which is largely determined by a set of rules, guidelines and formulas for calculation.

11. What is Case Management and Why is it needed?

In Bergen County, some 3,000 cases a year are added to the divorce docket. About the same number are disposed of annually. Some cases are no-asset, uncontested matters, and others are dismissed because the parties reconcile. However, most of the divorce litigation requires court intervention at some point – or at several points.

The timetable for the average case anticipates its being concluded within a year of filing the complaint. Some matter, because of their complexity, the appearance of new issues, illness or some other reason, may require a longer time to conclude. Of these 3,000 annual filings, less than 50 will be tried to conclusion. This means that nearly 98% of dissolution cases filed are resolved without trial – by settlement that comes about in various ways. Sometimes the parties and their attorneys will meet several times to work out an agreement. These are called “four-way conferences”. Or the parties and their counsel will be court-ordered to attend a Mandatory Early Settlement Panel (MESP), which consists of three lawyers experienced in family matters who will review the parties’ positions and make recommendations for settlement. If a case is resolved by the panel, a judge will hear the divorce as an uncontested matter, with the terms of the settlement recommendations as the basis for further settlement discussions on their own.

A divorce case cannot be tried, nor can intelligent, meaningful settlement discussions be conducted unless and until all the underlying information (mostly financial) is available and the parties’ respective positions are put forth. At the Case Management Conference, each case is put on a “track” (priority, expedited, standard or complex) and a schedule is set through which this information may be obtained in an orderly manner.

First is a determination whether or not there is dispute over child custody or parenting time. If so, the case will be designated a “priority” case. Litigants must certify it to be a genuine issue and not merely strategy or manifestation of a litigant’s annoyance with or defiance of the other party. Parents must be made aware of the effect their divorce is having and will have on their children. Litigation of a custody/parenting time arrangement should only be used when all other attempts at resolution have failed. It is the least desirable method. Involving children in their parents’ litigation can and likely will have a deleterious effect on them now and in the future. Children should perceive that decisions affecting their future are being made by their own parents and not by a third party (such as a judge).

If custody and/or parenting time are issues, the parties should have already attended a Parent Education Program. If the issues remain, the judge may order the parties to view two additional videotapes focusing on children and divorce. The parties should go to room 148 in the courthouse to schedule the viewing. Ultimately, they must prepare and sign a custody or parenting time through one of the services available. An order for mediation may be signed after the Case Management Conference. The parties must report to the Judge’s team for the order to be prepared or the parties may hire a private mediator.

If the parties are unable to settle the issue, it will be necessary to engage experts for psychological evaluation (each side’s expert can cost several thousand dollars). As an alternative to individual experts, the parties may agree to use a joint expert or may use Bergen Family Center, a private organization affiliated with the County, whose rates are based on ability-to-pay, with the top fee of $2,350. Custody issues cannot be decided merely on the basis of the litigants’ testimony.

CASE MANAGEMENT PROCEDURES

The enclosed Notice for Case Management Conference is accompanied by a blank Case Management Order. You may complete a Case Management Consent Order on the form provided (leaving the date for the MESP blank) and cancel the scheduled Case Management Conference provided all of the following apply:

  1. Both parties’ Case Information Statements have been submitted to the Court.
  2. Both parties agree that discovery will be completed within 120 days of filing the complaint and agree that the case be assigned to the “standard track”.
  3. Both parties agree that there are no contested issues involving child custody or time sharing and no experts are required for business valuations, lifestyle analysis, vocational determinations, realty appraisals, pension appraisals, etc.
  4. The completed Consent Case Management Order is submitted to the court no less than five days prior to the scheduled Case Management Conference date.
  5. In the event that any one of these conditions is not met, both parties and their attorneys must be present at the scheduled Case Management Conference.

If compliance with the discovery provisions of the Consent Case Management Order becomes problematic, counsel should confer with each other and contact the Team Leader to schedule a follow-up Case Management Conference. A new Case Management Order may be necessary extending the discovery deadline dates and also the scheduled Mandatory Early Settlement Panel. It is not acceptable for the parties’ counsel to wait until the Mandatory Settlement Panel date to declare they are not prepared to proceed because of “incomplete discovery”. Failure to recognize and address such problems may result in sanctions or in the waiver of additional discovery.

These procedures result from a joint effort between the bench and a select subcommittee of the Bergen County Bar Association Family Law Committee.