Deciding to represent yourself in your divorce can feel overwhelming. To help you navigate the court system, this article provides a basic overview of the divorce process in New Jersey.
New Jersey courts use the terms “divorce” and “dissolution” interchangeably. Both words mean the same thing—a court process that ends the marriage. During a divorce proceeding, the court will also make decisions about divorce-related issues, such as child custody and support, division of debts and assets, and alimony awards.
Before you can file for divorce, either you or your spouse must have been a New Jersey resident for the last 12 consecutive months. If neither spouse meets residency requirements, you will have to wait to file your divorce. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §2A-34:10 (2019).
When you’re ready to start the divorce process, you’ll file a “Complaint for Divorce/Dissolution.” New Jersey courts have four types of divorce complaint forms to start the divorce, so choose the one that best fits your circumstances. The New Jersey Courts website has an online self-help section with numerous divorce forms. The spouse filing for divorce is called the “plaintiff” and the other spouse is called the “defendant.”
You can seek a fault or no-fault divorce in New Jersey. A “no-fault” divorce means that neither spouse is at fault for the marriage’s breakdown and that the couple has irreconcilable differences. “Irreconcilable differences” means that you and your spouse can no longer get along and there is no real chance of a reconciliation.
New Jersey offers two types of no-fault divorce:
A “fault” divorce means that one spouse’s actions or behavior has caused the marriage to fall apart. Although there are a number of reasons or “grounds” under state law, two of the more common fault grounds are:
To determine whether these or any other grounds fit your situation, you should consult an experienced New Jersey family law attorney.
The other documents that must be filed with the divorce complaint are:
Make at least three copies of your complaint and related divorce paperwork. The court requires that you provide one original for filing and two copies. You should provide the court with a self-addressed stamped envelope so the court can give you a copy of what you filed. The copy will be marked “filed.”
New Jersey law requires that you, the plaintiff, file in the county where the actions that led to the divorce happened. For example, if the spouses have lived apart for 18 months, the county where the plaintiff last lived during or at the end of the 18 months is where the divorce is filed (submitted), even if the plaintiff no longer lives there.
If the complaint says that one spouse deserted the other for 12 months, the complaint is filed in the county where the deserted spouse last lived at the end the 12 months. If you were living outside New Jersey when your marriage began to deteriorate, you can file in the New Jersey county where you now live.
To find your local court, go to the New Jersey Courts website and click on the “Courts” tab. You can access information on your local court by selecting your county. When you’re ready to file your case, be prepared to pay a divorce filing fee. Information on the court filing fees is available on the New Jersey Courts site. If you cannot pay the fee, ask the court clerk about obtaining a fee waiver.
Once the court clerk provides you with a copy of the complaint stamped “filed,” you should fill out the summons and attached proof of service (form 7) and prepare to serve your spouse.
Under New Jersey law, the defendant must be personally served via hand delivery with a copy of the divorce paperwork. You can accomplish service by having a sheriff or process server hand-deliver a copy of the petition to your spouse at home or work.
The sheriff will charge a fee for this service. Include form 7A, “cover letter to the sheriff.” Make at least three copies of the divorce paperwork. Send two copies to the sheriff and keep one for your files. Send the sheriff a self-addressed stamped envelope so the sheriff can send you proof that the defendant received the paperwork. Include a check or money order for the sheriff’s fees. Call the sheriff’s office for fee information.
Alternatively, your spouse may agree to accept service personally or through an attorney. If your spouse agrees to accept service, be sure to obtain a signed acceptance of service for filing with the court. When you receive proof that your spouse received the divorce paperwork, mail that proof to the court. Keep a copy of the proof for your records.
If the above methods of service are unsuccessful, you can ask the court for permission to serve by certified mail or alternative means. If your spouse is out of state, contact the sheriff in the county where your spouse now lives. Go to the state website for contact info about the county sheriff. The civil process of the sheriff’s office in any county provides service of divorce papers.
If your spouse is in the military or in jail, contact your court clerk for information about serving a spouse in these unique circumstances because special rules apply.
The defendant spouse has 35 days after receiving the divorce paperwork to do one or more of the following:
Legal Services of New Jersey’s brochure, “Divorce in New Jersey, A Self-Help Guide” can be found on its website. Additional divorce forms or legal services are available to those who qualify. Contact Legal Services of New Jersey at (732) 572-9100 for more information.
You can also check out our New Jersey Divorce and Family Law section for more information.