If you're planning on getting divorced in New Jersey, the legal process can seem daunting. But it doesn't always have to be an ordeal, depending on your circumstances and the choices you make.
There are a number of paths you can take when you file for a New Jersey divorce:
If you decide to pursue the divorce by yourself, here's some advice about what you need to do to begin the process.
Before you can file for divorce in New Jersey, either you or your spouse must have been a New Jersey resident for the last 12 consecutive months. The only exception to this waiting period is when your reason for seeking divorce is based on your spouse's adultery. (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A-34:10 (2021).)
You must also have "grounds" for divorce, meaning a legally acceptable reason for terminating the marriage. New Jersey allows both "fault" and "no-fault" divorce grounds. Fault grounds apply when you're accusing your spouse of wrongdoing, such as adultery, mental or physical cruelty, or desertion.
With no-fault grounds, neither spouse is blaming the other for the collapse of the marriage. The two no-fault grounds in New Jersey apply when the spouses:
(N.J. Rev. Stat. §2A-34:2 (2021).)
The New Jersey Courts website has a self-help center. Unfortunately, it only offers some of the forms you'll need to start the divorce process. For a small fee, Legal Services of New Jersey offers a divorce kit with forms and instructions. Or you can get the forms through an online divorce service.
If you're the one initiating the divorce you'll fill out the forms as the "plaintiff." Your spouse is the "defendant." To start the divorce proceedings (also known as "dissolution" in New Jersey), you'll need to complete the following documents:
There are different forms for the complaint, depending on your grounds for divorce:
If you're including a request for alimony in the complaint, it's helpful to know that the court generally doesn't consider a spouse's fault when deciding the amount of alimony or whether to award alimony at all. (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A-34:23 (2021).) There are exceptions, but they're rare. So normally you're better off filing under a no-fault ground, since this tends to tamp down the hostility and legal battles in divorce cases.
You'll file the divorce complaint and accompanying documents with the Family Division court clerk's office in the New Jersey county where you resided when your ground for divorce (known as a "cause of action") arose. For example, if you're filing for divorce based on irreconcilable differences, and you lived in Morris County, New Jersey, when the mandatory six-month period ended, you'd file your documents in that county. If you didn't live in New Jersey when the cause of action arose, you'd file in the New Jersey county where your spouse resided at that time. If neither of you were residents when the cause of action arose, you'd file in the New Jersey county where you currently live. (N.J. Rules of Court, rule 5:7-1 (2021).)
The court requires that you file an original and two copies of your documents, but it's a good idea to make a couple of additional copies just in case. You should provide the clerk's office with a self-addressed stamped envelope so they can give you a copy marked "filed." (If you'd like to file your documents electronically, check the court's website for information.)
When you're ready to file your case, be prepared to pay a filing fee. Information on the court filing fees (which are subject to change) is available on the New Jersey Courts website. As of late 2021, the fee was $300, plus a $25 Parent Workshop fee if there are children involved. If you can't afford the fee, ask the court clerk about applying for a fee waiver.
Once the court clerk provides you with a copy of the complaint stamped "filed," you should fill out the summons and the attached proof of service and prepare to serve your spouse.
Typically, you will serve a copy of the summons, complaint, and other divorce papers by having a sheriff or process server hand-deliver them to your spouse at home or work.
The sheriff will charge a fee for service. (Call the sheriff's office for fee information.) Send two copies of the divorce papers to the sheriff and keep one copy for your files. Also, send the sheriff's office a self-addressed stamped envelope so they can send you proof that the defendant received the paperwork. Include a check or money order for the fees.
Alternatively, your spouse may agree to accept service personally or through an attorney. If your spouse agrees to accept service, be sure to get a signed Acknowledgment of Service. When you receive proof that your spouse received the divorce paperwork, mail that proof to the court and keep a copy for your records.
If the above methods of service are unsuccessful, or if your spouse is out of state or is in the military or jail, ask the court clerk about the alternative methods of service. (N.J. Rules of Court, rules 4:4-3, 4:4-4, 4:4-5 (2021).)
Your spouse has 35 days after receiving the divorce paperwork to file one of the following:
An Appearance is most often used when you and your spouse have resolved all your marital issues, and have entered into a marital settlement agreement (also known as a "divorce settlement agreement" or "separation agreement").
Early in the divorce case, both spouses will have to provide detailed information about their income, expenses, assets, and liabilities. Each of you will need to complete the appropriate Family Part Case Information Statement. This must be filed with the court within 20 days after the defendant spouse files an answer or appearance.
This document requires you to provide a great deal of data about your income and assets. It's a good idea to gather as much of this information in advance as you can, because it's important that you be as thorough as possible when you complete the form. It's critical to be honest, because a spouse who fails to disclose all accounts, debts, or assets could face penalties in a divorce case, such as fines and possible jail time.
While filing for divorce on your own is possible, it might not always be the best idea. It's most practical when you have an uncontested case, or you have no minor or dependent children and very few assets. But in situations where you have complex or significant assets (such as a family business or retirement accounts to split) or thorny custody issues, you will probably be better off hiring a lawyer, if that's at all possible. Divorce laws can be quite complicated. A qualified divorce lawyer will know the intricacies of the law, as well as how the court system works.
Remember, you're likely going to have to live with the results of your case well after the divorce is over. If, down the road, you realize you made a mistake, there's no guarantee you'll be able to correct it. So it pays to get it right the first time.