Contested Divorce in New Jersey
In New Jersey, a contested divorce happens when divorcing spouses cannot agree on the specifics of property division, money, or child custody. When this happens, both sides will need to file their respective petitions with the court and ask for what they want. The judge will then have the final say.
An uncontested divorce happens when both spouses agree on the details of their divorce settlement and therefore don’t need to file petitions or ask the judge to make a final decision for them. This makes for a much easier, faster, and less expensive divorce process.
In a contested divorce, one party files a complaint and serves it to the other party officially. The second party responds with an answer. Then, both sides engage in discovery and attend pretrial conferences. If they aren’t able to work through the issues, it will go to trial.
From start to finish, this whole process can take a few months to a few years, depending on the complexity of the case.
What are the reasons for a contested divorce in New Jersey?
There are several reasons why it might be necessary to file a contested divorce.
Division of marital assets and debts
Determining how to split up property, investments, assets, and debts can be a contentious process. Both spouses may not agree on how to fairly split everything up.
Alimony (spousal support)
Alimony is a monthly payment made by a spouse with a higher income to a spouse with a lower (or no) income. Whether alimony should be paid – and if so, how much and for how long – is often a question couples grapple to answer.
Child custody and visitation
If you have children, disagreements may arise regarding who should have primary custody and who should have visitation rights. New Jersey considers each child's best interest when making custody decisions, including who receives legal custody (decision-making authority over medical and education decisions affecting the child), physical custody (where the child resides), and visitation schedules.
Based on where a child spends most of their time and the income disparity between the parents, one parent usually makes child support payments to the other. New Jersey uses guidelines that take parental incomes, the number of children within and outside the marriage, medical costs and insurance premiums, and education expenses into consideration when setting child support payments.
Once set, these payments will continue until either parent changes their circumstances or the children’s needs change significantly.
Whether a custodial parent has the right to move the child far away from the other parent may be a question in a contested divorce. In fact, any large changes or potential changes that would impact either parent’s visitation time should be addressed.
Domestic violence or abuse
If there have been incidents of domestic violence or abuse, proof will need to be filed. This will significantly impact how custodial exchanges take place or if child custody is allowed.
What does the process look like for a contested divorce in New Jersey?
Going through a contested divorce in New Jersey can be complex and emotionally challenging. It can also be a long process, depending on how backed up the courts are and how many filings are required.
In general, you can expect the following steps:
1. File the complaint
The spouse who files for divorce is the plaintiff. They begin legal proceedings by submitting a complaint for divorce to the Superior Court of New Jersey. This document outlines your reasons for seeking to dissolve the marriage (such as no-fault divorce or specific grounds). It also outlines a proposal for how things like child custody and property division should go.
2. Serve the complaint
After filing the complaint, the person who filed must make sure that the other person (the defendant) received an official copy. This usually is accomplished by delivering the papers via a process server, sheriff's officer, or certified mail with a return receipt requested.
3. Answer and counterclaim
The defendant has 35 days to respond officially to the complaint by filing an answer. In some cases, they may also file a counterclaim that outlines their requests and issues regarding the divorce or specific issues that are being contested, such as child custody, visitation, or property division.
It’s important to note that any allegations or claims are more likely to hold weight with the court if evidence or proof is filed. Any evidence should be attached to the filing.
4. Attend case management conference
New Jersey requires that all contested divorces undergo a case management conference (CMC) in which a judge sets deadlines for discovery and pre-trial motions. These deadlines are usually spaced far enough apart on the calendar to give both parties time to explore settlement possibilities.
5. Participate in the discovery process
Discovery involves both parties exchanging information and gathering evidence related to their claims or requests. This can include making requests for documents, sitting down for depositions, and participating in interviews with outside parties.
For instance, if your spouse claims they make less than what is shown on their current pay stub, you can submit past-year family taxes or ask them to produce those if you filed separately. Similarly, if you pay for a child’s insurance and think that should be considered in the child support calculation, submit receipts.
6. Attend pretrial conferences and settlement negotiations
The court may schedule pretrial conferences designed to encourage a settlement without having to take up the court’s time. During this phase, you, your spouse, and your respective attorneys will attempt to resolve differences of opinion on different points through negotiation.
After the discovery process, you are able to see the evidence and hear your lawyer’s thoughts on whether or not your chances of getting what you asked for are better or worse. You may then choose to make some compromises.
7. Engage in custody and parenting time evaluation (if applicable)
If there are child custody disputes, the court may appoint a custody evaluator or parenting coordinator to assess the best interests of the child and make recommendations to the court. This could include home visits, one-on-one interviews with the child or the parents, group interviews, or phone conversations.
8. Go to trial
If a settlement isn't reached, your divorce case will proceed to trial. Both parties have an opportunity to present evidence, put witnesses on the stand, and present arguments before a judge who will ultimately make a final decision on all contested issues.
While family court judges typically prefer making their ruling based on discovery evidence alone, in some cases, they may ask for more evidence or clarification. If that happens, a trial will take place, and a hearing date will be set.
9. Wait for the court’s judgment and decree of divorce
After the trial is over, a judge will issue a ruling and make final decisions detailing child custody plans, child support payments, alimony (spousal support) payments, and property division as well as any other specific questions that were put in front of the court.
The judge will ask that it all be written up in a decree of divorce and submitted to the court. They’ll require that all people involved adhere to the rulings.
All questions should be resolved during the course of a single hearing. However, further hearings may be necessary in some cases, especially if finances require special consideration.
10. Participate in post-trial motions and appeals (if applicable)
Either party may file post-trial motions or appeals if they believe there were legal errors during the trial or if they want to challenge the court's decisions.
In some cases, evidence may come to light that was previously inaccessible or unknown. Or, one party may choose to hire an outside evaluator or investigator to gather more evidence with the intent to appeal. But this is rare, and most judges deny a requested appeal if it happens too soon after the divorce is finalized or there is no new evidence that substantially changes the rulings.
11. Finalize divorce
Your divorce will become final once one of the lawyers draws up the divorce decree, both parties sign it, and it is filed with the court. The process may not be over, however, especially if there are children involved. Circumstances can change over time, and updates to visitation and support may be needed.
If it’s just a matter of property division, as long as everyone abides by the ruling, doesn’t take anything that is not theirs, and pays what they owe, there is usually no reason to go back to court.
How long does a contested divorce in New Jersey take?
Under the best circumstances, a contested divorce will take a few months to finalize. But if a trial is needed, a lot of evidence is submitted to the court, or the judge requests more evidence, it can last much longer.
The best way to shorten the amount of time it takes is to come to a compromise. Remember that no one gets everything they want in a divorce. So, if you can pinpoint areas where you are willing to give, you can shorten the timeline substantially. If you can avoid court altogether and come to an agreement on issues to transition to an uncontested divorce, this is the shortest path to finalizing your divorce.
How much does a contested divorce in New Jersey cost?
Contested divorces are almost always very expensive. Even though filing fees, court costs, and process serving costs are the same whether the divorce is contested or not, attorneys’ fees add significantly to the overall cost.
It typically costs anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 in attorneys’ fees alone for the time it takes to meet with clients and opposing counsel, consider how best to accomplish what the client wants, gather evidence, and show up in court.
The final bill can creep even higher if the divorce is financially complex or there are multifaceted issues with child custody.
Mediation services offer significant cost savings. Mediators help both sides to reach a compromise that saves them time and money. If both parties can set aside differences and be willing to compromise on key issues, both benefit from cost savings, a shorter divorce timeline, and much less stress in the process.
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New Jersey Divorce Laws & How To File 2023 Guide. (May 24, 2023). Forbes.
Responding to a Divorce Complaint. New Jersey Courts.
Glossary of Terms - Divorce. New Jersey Courts.
Appealing a Contested Divorce Case. New Jersey Courts.
Modifying a Divorce Order. New Jersey Courts.
Divorce Decrees. New Jersey Courts.