Inexpensive Divorce Options in New Jersey

by Beverly Bird

Just as a puppy is less expensive to care for than a full-grown dog, the older your divorce case gets, the more money you must typically invest into ending your marriage. In New Jersey and elsewhere, your best option for cutting costs is usually to complete the process as quickly as possible.

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Beginning Your Case

New Jersey courts charge a fee when you file your complaint for divorce. If you have children, the state requires that you attend a mandatory parenting class, and the fee for this is tacked onto the filing fee. If you are unable to pay these fees, you can submit a fee waiver request to the court, but you'll have to provide proof of your income to demonstrate that you can't afford the fee. You must then serve a copy of your filed complaint on your spouse, but he can voluntarily acknowledge service and spare you the cost of having the county sheriff deliver the paperwork to him.

Uncontested Divorce by Default

If you have no assets or children, your spouse can do nothing when he receives your complaint for divorce. You can then ask the court for a default judgment after 35 days. The court will generally award you whatever relief you requested in your complaint – which may be as simple as an end to your marriage. If you choose this option, and if your spouse accepts service of your complaint, you can be divorced for the cost of filing your paperwork.

Uncontested Divorce by Agreement

If you have assets, debts, or children, you can still save a lot of costs if you reach an agreement with your spouse as to how to resolve these issues before you file your complaint. You can tell the court in your complaint that you would like your signed agreement -- called a property settlement agreement in New Jersey -- incorporated into your divorce judgment. This puts your divorce on an expedited track. The court will schedule an uncontested hearing. At the hearing, you can present your written agreement to the judge and be divorced. You can also submit a property settlement agreement at your default hearing if your spouse doesn't answer your complaint. If you file for divorce before you have a settlement agreement in place, you can notify the court at any time when you reach one and request a date for an uncontested hearing.

Settling at the MESP

If you don't reach a settlement agreement with your spouse, your costs will begin piling up. You'll probably want to engage in discovery, which is the process of requesting documentation from your spouse and third parties to gather information regarding the aspects of your case that are in dispute. Your spouse will most likely do the same thing, and the logistics of this can be difficult without an attorney. After you've competed discovery, New Jersey requires that you then attend a matrimonial early settlement panel, also called an early settlement panel in some counties. During the MESP, a panel of family law attorneys reviews the facts of your case, and then makes a recommendation for settlement. If you accept their recommendation – or negotiate with your spouse to bring it more in line with something with which you can live -- you can be divorced that day. Otherwise, the court will schedule your case for trial.

Settling at Mediation

The matrimonial early settlement panel typically addresses only economic issues. Therefore, the courts in most counties will schedule you for custody mediation even before you go to the MESP, so you can resolve parenting issues first. There's no cost for mediation in New Jersey -- it's a court-provided service. If you don't reach an agreement on parenting and custody at mediation, you'll have to go to trial even if you settle economic issues at the MESP; however, you won't be able to divorce that day if custody is still an outstanding issue. If you go to trial, you can probably expect to spend a great deal on the litigation, up to and including time missed from work. Contested divorce trials typically last more than a day.