Like the song says, breaking up is hard to do, but it doesn't have to be. If you and your spouse are on reasonably good terms and can work together, you can make your divorce a lot less painful. In fact, if you can negotiate in good faith, you might even be able to get an uncontested divorce, which will save you a lot of time and money.
This article will explain uncontested divorces in New Jersey. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney.
Overview of an Uncontested Divorce in New Jersey
An uncontested divorce simply means that both spouses agree on all the key terms of the divorce, including:
- child custody and visitation, including where your children will live
- child support, health and dental insurance, and medical expenses for the children
- tax deductions and exemptions
- division of the marital assets and debts
- alimony, and
- any other dispute involving your marriage.
If you or your spouse disagree about any of these items, your divorce will be considered "contested" and it will have to go to trial. But keep in mind, you can still reach an agreement at any time before the judge issues a final order.
New Jersey has a special legal rule that says uncontested divorces can be placed on an expedited track (meaning, moved along more quickly) if all of the following statements are true:
- The case can go to a final hearing quickly, because very few or no pretrial proceedings (for example, discovery, where you exchange information with your spouse) are necessary.
- There is no dispute about the spouses’ income, the value of their assets, or the custody and visitation (known as “parenting time” in New Jersey) of their children.
- The marriage has only lasted for five years or less.
- The spouses have written and signed a property settlement agreement that memorializes their total agreement.
- The case is uncontested (meaning, both parties are in full agreement).
Divorce Requirements in New Jersey
There are a couple of preliminary hurdles that you’ll have to clear before you can get divorced in New Jersey. Keep these in mind before you get started. First, there's a residency requirement for divorce. One of the two spouses must have lived in New Jersey for at least one year before the first divorce papers are filed at the courthouse.
Second, you'll need to have a "ground," or legal cause for the divorce. Most people will select “irreconcilable differences,” which simply means that for the last six months you and your spouse have experienced a breakdown in your relationship and the marriage can’t be saved.
Going with irreconcilable differences means that no one is blamed for anything, but there is also the option to cite marital fault as the cause of the divorce, which includes adultery, cruelty, desertion, chemical dependency, hospitalization for mental illness, deviant sexual conduct, and imprisonment. However, these are fault-based grounds and if you use one of them, your spouse is more likely to argue and less likely to settle.
The Uncontested Divorce Process
Before you begin, locate your courthouse
You’re responsible for knowing where to file your papers. If you file in the wrong place, your case could be tossed out or transferred and you might have to start over.
The courts that hear divorce cases are called superior courts. Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has its own superior court. The New Jersey Courts have a website you can use to identify the superior court you’ll be using.
Remember: when you're starting your case, it's crucial to file your papers in the correct court.
Prepare your divorce forms
If you’re the "plaintiff" (the spouse who starts the divorce), the first thing that you need to do is locate the correct forms and complete them. You can find some of the forms in this divorce law handbook or you can get them from a clerk at the courthouse. One key document you'll prepare is the complaint, which gives the court information about you, your marriage, and what you want out of the divorce.
At some point, you and your spouse will also need to complete and file a written property settlement agreement, which must settle all your issues related to property, money, children, and alimony. If you still don’t agree on everything at the beginning of your case, you can prepare this later. However, if you can reach an agreement from the outset, your case is eligible to be fast-tracked—so it’s to your advantage to work everything out before you file.
File and serve your papers
Next, you’ll need to file your papers in the correct courthouse. You’ll need the summons, complaint, a certification of insurance, and a case information statement. The clerk of court will charge a filing fee, but if you can't afford to pay, don't worry. You can ask for a fee waiver form, which you will fill out and use to provide the court with financial information. If you meet the income guidelines, a judge will sign an order eliminating all fees for the duration of the case.
Next, you need to serve the papers on the "defendant" (the other spouse) by having them delivered. If you and your spouse are already in total agreement, you can give the documents to your spouse informally and have your spouse sign an acknowledgement of service, which must then be filed. If you and your spouse are not in agreement yet, or you think your spouse won’t cooperate, you will have to serve the papers through a process server or sheriff’s deputy.
Attend a final hearing in court
If the divorce is to be uncontested, the defendant should not file an answer to the complaint. Then the case will proceed by default. After 35 days, the plaintiff can file a request for default judgment and get a final hearing date.
At the final hearing, a judge will look at your papers to make sure that you reached a global agreement. The plaintiff has to attend this hearing, and it’s recommended that the defendant come too.
The judge will have some brief questions about the settlement. If the judge thinks the agreement is fair and everything is in order, the judge will sign the final divorce decree and staple the settlement to it.
You may be able to obtain additional information through New Jersey Courts: Self-Help Resource Center, Legal Services of New Jersey (legal aid and divorce information), or Legal Services of New Jersey: Divorce Self-Help Guide.
If you still have questions or need help, you should contact an experienced family law attorney in your area. Even in an uncontested divorce case, it can be helpful to consult with an attorney who can answer questions about your rights and responsibilities, make sure your paperwork is filled out correctly, and even review a settlement agreement on your behalf.