Litigated divorces follow a formalized path that varies only slightly from cases to case. Therefore, while the relevant laws and the Court rulings in each case will differ from one case to another, the steps from start to finish do not vary greatly. The general divorce timeline is as follows:
The complaint is the first pleading that is filed in every divorce case to open the case. However, it does not have to be the first thing that is done in the case; it can come after other actions have been taken such as mediation, document exchanges or even the execution of a final Marital Settlement Agreement. It is usually served on the opposing party or their attorney by mail, although some cases require personal service. The opposing party then files an Answer and, generally, a Counterclaim for Divorce. The majority of divorce complaints are based upon “irreconcilable differences.” Fault-based divorce complaints such as complaints based on extreme cruelty are a rarity in this day and age.
Case Management Conference
The first thing that occurs after the filing of the initial pleadings is the entry of a Case Management Order. For this purpose, a case management conference date is assigned to the case, however before that date the attorneys will usually enter into a Case Management Order setting down all of the dates by which certain actions must be taken. These dates include the exchange of Case Information Statements, the exchange and completion of discovery, appraisals, experts’ reports, depositions and any other action or event required by the particular case.
Parent Education Seminar and Custody/Parenting Time Mediation
In every case in which children are involved, very early in the case the parties are required to attend a Parent Education seminar (on different dates) and custody/parenting time mediation. The participation of both parties in this process is mandatory unless there is a domestic violence restraining order in effect.
Between the filing of the Complaint and the end of the case, if a party wants to bring “pendente lite” issues to the attention of the Court (such as the payment of temporary financial support, the scheduling of parenting times, asset dissipation restraints and the like) they do so by filing a Motion. The other party responds to the Motion and can also file their own Cross Motion. The attorneys then argue the Motion and Cross Motion in Court and the Court renders rulings on all of the issues that are raised. In some cases, no Motions are filed, while in others, multiple Motions may be filed.
Between the Complaint filing and the divorce, there is a phase known as the discovery phase. “Discovery” is the collection of the facts needed to resolve the case. Facts are collected by way of Interrogatories (written questions and answers), Notices to Produce Documents, depositions (oral questions and answers taken down by court reporters) and subpoenas. Custody Evaluations, Closely Held Business Appraisals, Professional Practice Appraisals, Real Estate Appraisals, Vocational Evaluations, and other expert evaluations are conducted during this time period, after which the experts’ reports are issued and exchanged between the attorneys.
Matrimonial Early Settlement Panels (referred to as “MESP’s” or “ESP’s”)
These panels are processes through which every divorce case filed within the Court system must go. The Panels take place at the Courthouse and are made up of two experienced family law attorneys who meet with the parties’ attorneys and help them settle your case. The parties must attend the Panel but they normally do not go into the Panel room. A “Blue Ribbon Panel” is slightly different from a regular MESP. A Blue Ribbon Panel takes place outside of the Courthouse and is used in complex cases that require more time and personal attention from the Panelists than a regular MESP can offer. The attorneys who act as Blue-Ribbon panelists are paid by the parties for their time preparing for and attending the Blue Ribbon Panel
Post-MESP Conference With the Court
After the MESP, the Court will hold a conference in person or by telephone. At the conference, the Court will determine what issues remain in dispute and how best to bring about agreements on those disputed issues. These efforts to bring about resolution generally require the parties and their attorneys to engage in some form(s) of alternate dispute resolution.
If all else fails, the Court will schedule dates for the submission of pretrial briefs and exhibit binders as well as dates for trial. Trial dates in Family Court are generally not consecutive and can extend out over months. When trial ends, the Court schedules dates by which written “Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law” must be filed. Often the attorneys must order the trial transcripts in order to prepare their post-trial submissions. Because of their large caseloads and the necessity for rulings to be detailed and precise, trial Judges often take several months to render their final rulings.
Motions for Reconsideration: In certain specific instances, Motions for Reconsideration can be filed with the Trial Court to ask the Court to reconsider its pendente lite and final rulings. Motions for Reconsideration have to be based on one of a small number of reasons which are set forth in the New Jersey Court Rules.
Whether or not a Motion for Reconsideration is filed in the Trial Court, a party can file an appeal of all or part of the Trial Court’s final rulings. It is highly unusual for pendente lite rulings to be appealed since there is only a very small chance that they will be successful. In addition, an appeal on a pendente lite ruling can not be filed unless the Appellate Court first give permission to the party seeking the appeal. Appeals of final rulings do not require the permission of the Appellate Division but they can take more than a year from filing to receipt of the Appellate Division’s rulings. In the meantime, in most cases, the Trial Court’s ruling stands unless and until it is modified by the Appellate Court.