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Divorce Options

What type of divorce is best suited for your personal situation?

The answer depends on several important factors:

  • The length of your marriage
  • Whether or not you have children
  • The reasons for your break-up
  • The number and/or value of assets that need to be divided
  • You and your spouse’s ability to effectively communicate and cooperate with each other

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE

The majority of divorce cases today are uncontested which means both parties can eventually work out an agreement without a court hearing.  You have several options for proceeding with an uncontested divorce: arbitration, mediation and collaborative divorce.

  • Arbitration
    If you and your spouse agree that you want to avoid a legal hearing but can’t agree on how to resolve the details pertaining to your divorce, you may want to consider arbitration as an option. During arbitration, a private arbitrator (often a lawyer or retired judge) acts as a neutral third party to resolve the issues pertaining to your case. The arbitrator makes the final, binding ruling for your case.
  • Mediation
    Mediation also involves a neutral third party.  Unlike an arbitrator, a mediator does not make any final decisions about your case.  The mediator is there to help facilitate a fair agreement between you and your spouse. That agreement is then brought before a judge to finalize the terms of your divorce.
  • Collaborative Divorce
    In collaborative divorce, there is no neutral third party.  Instead, you and your spouse retain separate attorneys who specialize in collaborative law.  At the onset of the process, you and your spouse will sign an agreement stating your willingness to work together with your attorneys toward resolving all the issues pertaining to your divorce.  If no agreement is eventually reached, both attorneys have to withdraw from the case and you and your spouse will have to start over and reevaluate your options for divorcing.

CONTESTED DIVORCE

A contested divorce may be necessary if you and your spouse are unable to agree on the terms of your divorce, or if there are certain more complex circumstances pertaining to your divorce.  In a contested divorce, you and your spouse will each hire separate attorneys and the process may entail several court hearings, settlement negotiations and a trial before a judge who will then make the final ruling pertaining to your divorce.

A certified divorce coach can help you get organized and prepared for whatever option you choose as well as connect you to reputable attorneys who specialize in family law.

Important Details

What do you want from your divorce settlement? The house? The car? The painting on the living room wall? The leather couch from the den? Partial reimbursement for the kids’ extracurricular activities? A percentage of your spouse’s 401K?  While there is no guarantee that you will be awarded every request, there are ways to ensure that nothing is overlooked. It is important to clarify first for yourself (then to your attorney) exactly what you want from the divorce settlement.  Take time to thoroughly brainstorm until you come up with a list of things that are most important to you regarding the dissolution of your marriage.  Take into consideration your current lifestyle, finances, children’s ages, living situation, employment status, and all the other logistics that will likely be affected by a marital break-up. Write down everything that comes to mind, matters big and small.  The next step is to review your list and prioritize which points are most important to you.  Then go over your list again and make each item as specific as possible.

For example:

“College Savings” for her children was at the top of one woman’s list.  Knowing that she and her husband would both be affected financially by their divorce, she still wanted to ensure that they both continued to contribute to their children’s college funds. In order to avoid any future discrepancies on this matter, she was advised to be as specific as possible concerning this topic.  Her husband also agreed that continuing to save for college was important.  As a result, in their final divorce papers it is stated that both husband and wife are to contribute X amount of dollars on the first day of every month into each child’s college savings account for X amount of years. Each child’s full name and individual account number are noted.  Having a specific dollar amount, deposited into a specific account, on a specific day of the month, for a specific duration of time, eliminates any potential confusion as to where and how money for college will be saved.

This same principle of specificity can apply to most articles in the divorce agreement.  Eliminating ambiguity sets forth clear expectations and responsibilities for each party involved, thus reducing the occurrence of future conflicts and misunderstanding as well as further legal proceedings.

What About the Kids?

Divorce is a tumultuous family affair. Even under the most amicable circumstance, a divorce will have a lasting impact on all family members. Whether your kids are toddlers or teens, they will experience an array of emotions as their family life undergoes numerous changes. Here are some simple tips to help your children adjust to their new family dynamic.

  • Keep it simple. Your children do not need to know about every aspect of your divorce. While it is important to be honest with your kids, it is not necessary to discuss adult matters with them.  Spare them the details.  Most kids are unlikely to fully grasp or comprehend your marital issues.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. As parents, we want to promise our kids the world. Choose your words wisely when discussing the future with your kids. Parents often tend to make promises to allay their children’s worries and fears.  Don’t promise them a better life, a new home, more toys, special activities, etc unless you know for sure you can deliver.  If your promises fall through, you risk losing their trust.  And now, more than ever, they need to know they can rely on you and your word.
  • Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Ask your children how they are feeling often. Don’t assume everything is okay just because you may not see any outward signs of distress. Help them to verbalize their feelings, but don’t put words in their mouths. For example, instead of saying, “Do you feel mad?” ask them to describe what they’re feeling and encourage them to express those feelings in healthy, creative ways. For example, a younger child could draw a picture while an older child could be encouraged to write their feelings in a journal.
  • Maintain consistency in their everyday lives. With all the changes going on in your children’s lives, try to maintain their normal routines and schedules. Even if you have to relocate, adhere to regular meal times and bed times.  Children find comfort in familiarity.  Encourage them to remain involved in all their extracurricular activities and hobbies.  Continue with your usual celebrations for special occasions. Stick to your typical parenting style and disciplinary tactics.  No matter how chaotic your life may now seem, focus on maintaining a solid foundation for your kids.
  • Create new rituals. While children crave familiarity to feel safe and secure, it’s also fun to create some new rituals together that can help define your new situation. Here are a few ideas:  invent  a special secret handshake;  share a joke every night at the dinner table; create a unique family dessert made from everyone’s favorite cookies and ice cream flavors;  hold a family dance night, skit night or game night once a month; say good morning in a different language every day.  Being silly and fun and creative lightens the mood in the household and introduces new fond memories to cherish.
  • Reassure them of your unconditional love. Children may feel abandoned by the parent who moved out, or in their mind “left” the family. These feelings may lead to issues pertaining to separation anxiety.  This is even true for older children whose notion of permanence has been somewhat shattered. Reassure your children that they are loved by both their parents.  Make sure your kids know that they are your top priority and that you will never leave them.  If they are demanding a little extra attention right now, give it to them.  Saying you love them is not enough, show them! Children also tend to blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. “If I was a better boy, daddy wouldn’t have left.”   “If I had put my toys away, mommy wouldn’t have yelled at daddy so much.”  While irrational to adults, these beliefs are very real to children. Your kids need to know that they have done nothing wrong and that their actions did not lead to the current situation.
  • Answer their questions. Children can ask some pretty tough questions. Try to answer them honestly and age appropriately.  Create an environment where your children feel comfortable asking you anything.  Take the time to really listen to what they are asking you and take the time to consider your response carefully. If you don’t have a clear cut answer for them, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”  If the questions pertain to their other parent, refrain from making negative, hurtful or disrespectful comments.
  • Ask them what they want, need and think. What we assume our kids want, need, and think might actually be very different from what is really going on in their minds.  Don’t assume your kids are feeling the same way you are.   Children’s thought processes and emotional responses vary greatly from adults’.  When we project our own fears, doubts and worries onto our children, we often create issues that would not have otherwise existed.
  • Consider family therapy or a children’s support group. The help of an experienced professional to guide you and your children through this sensitive time can be invaluable. A children’s divorce support group can help children realize they are not alone in their situation. Furthermore, kids may open up more easily to their peers.  A therapeutic setting provides both children and parents an outlet for self expression, healing and growth.
  • Point out the positives. While it may be hard at first to find anything positive about the dissolution of your family, try to focus on the bright side. Anything bright! For example, many children of divorce split time between their parents’ houses. Instead of focusing on the hassle of going back and forth between two households, point out to them how lucky they are to now have two of everything—two houses, two birthday parties, two holiday celebrations. They also get special alone time with each parent. Find reasons to be joyous and appreciative of little things.

The Big Picture

During the divorce process, important decisions are made under highly emotional circumstances.  Whether you’ve been married only a short time or for decades, the dynamics of your life will change.  Keep in mind, every divorce is different. Important issues in one divorce proceeding might be completely irrelevant in another.  Realize that you have choices throughout the process.  In order to make the right decisions for you and your family, it is important to prioritize.  Really think about what is worth standing up for, what is worth letting go of, and which issues you are willing to compromise on.

 

Think of your divorce as a negotiation process, not a war. Unfortunately, while you are caught up in the midst of these negotiations, it is often difficult to detach from emotionally driven decisions. This is where a divorce coach can aid you by keeping you focused on the big picture, helping you clarify and prioritize your concerns, and supporting you to keep your emotions under control.

Once you have established your preliminary concerns pertaining to your divorce settlement, take the time to carefully review them.  Then ask yourself, will these terms still make sense in one year from now? How about in five years? Ten years?

Remember, the position you are currently in and the emotions you are feeling at this moment will inevitably change with the passage of time.  What seems so crucial to you now, may seem unimportant in the future.  Try to take a step back from the process and view it from different perspectives.  For example, the thought of having to move from your marital home might initially seem out of the question, especially if you have young children and are rooted in your neighborhood and community.  Fast forward two years and you may be faced with the realization that economically it may have been a poor decision to stay in the home. Or perhaps you’ll realize that all the upkeep for the house is just too much work.  Fast forward another five years, and the kids are off to college and the scenario changes once again.  We can’t predict the future, but when determining what’s important in your divorce settlement it can be extremely helpful to think beyond your present emotional and financial state.

Getting Your Paperwork in Order

Your attorney will need access to numerous documents throughout the various stages of the divorce process. Initially, some basic identifying information is needed to proceed with filing divorce papers with the court. Such information includes your full name; date of birth; maiden name; social security number; current address; full names, birth dates and social security numbers of all children; and documentation pertaining to any previous marriages, if applicable. You will also need to provide information about your matrimonial ceremony, such as when and where it took place and who officiated the marriage.

Additional documentation will be collected to estimate your joint net worth and to assess your current lifestyle/cost of living. For this, you will need to provide all savings and checking account numbers, including brokerage accounts, investment portfolios, retirement accounts and life insurance policies. Recent tax returns, pay stubs, bank statements, real estate deeds and car titles will also be reviewed. It is important to furnish and distinguish assets which may be premarital, gifted or inherited.  In addition to calculating all of your assets, you will also need to provide information to determine your total debt. For this, mortgage statements, car payments, all credit card statements and any other outstanding loans will be reviewed.

A list of basic monthly expenditures is also essential. Keep track of and record all regularly occurring monthly expenses such as gas, electric, water, phone and cable bills, as well as insurance bills, taxes and mortgage, credit card and car payments.   Don’t forget to include miscellaneous expenses related to groceries; childcare; recreational and leisure activities; commuting; health and self-care; home maintenance and repair; and any other additional services.  A realistic understanding of all your monthly expenses will facilitate the process of calculating a workable budget.

Whether or not you are currently working and regardless of your current income, you will also need to provide information that will help determine your earning potential. Therefore, information regarding your educational background and employment history will be collected.

Being prepared and organized with all this information will help facilitate the equitable distribution of assets as well as the overall divorce process.

What is an Uncontested Divorce?

In an uncontested divorce, spouses are able to reach an agreement without having to go to trial. This means all the main issues pertaining to the divorce are settled outside of court. Most divorce cases are actually uncontested. There are numerous advantages to having an uncontested divorce. When spouses can come to an agreement on the terms of their divorce, time, energy and money are saved. In addition, uncontested divorces can be less emotionally draining and both spouses have the opportunity to maintain more control of the final outcome.
In order for a divorce to be uncontested, numerous issues must be considered and resolved between the spouses. The first step in the process is declaring the grounds for your divorce. Grounds are simply a valid reason for pursuing your divorce. You can file for divorce based on fault or no-fault grounds. Examples of fault grounds include adultery, substance abuse, mental illness, imprisonment, desertion, cruelty. No-fault grounds can be established simply by stating irreconcilable differences or by living separately for an extended period of time with no intentions of reuniting. Most uncontested divorces are filed under no-fault grounds.

Once the grounds for the divorce have been established, spouses must agree on the terms of their divorce. This is usually outlined in the Property Settlement Agreement.   This document (which covers all issues pertaining to finances, property, children and alimony) defines both spouses’ rights and obligations.  After collecting and reviewing all the relevant Information pertaining to both parties’ incomes, real estate holdings, taxes, insurance policies, parenting plans, debts, expenses, investments, etc, your attorney will negotiate and draft your final Property Settlement Agreement. A thorough and detailed Property Settlement Agreement basically states what your post-divorce life will entail.

Next, your attorney needs to prepare the necessary paperwork to file for divorce at your county courthouse.  These documents include:  a summons; a complaint; a certificate of insurance listing all the coverage pertaining to both spouses and children; and a case information statement that details both spouses’ finances. The spouse who files the complaint requesting for the divorce is the plaintiff, the other spouse is the defendant.  After the paperwork is filed on behalf of the plaintiff, the papers are then “served” (delivered) to the defendant.  In most uncontested divorces, the defendant or the defendant’s attorney signs an “acknowledgement of service” document to prove that they received the court papers.  From the day the defendant is served, he or she has 35 days to file an “answer” to the complaint.  In doing so, the defendant responds to each statement in the complaint, either agreeing or disagreeing with each issue.  The defendant also has the right to file a counterclaim, which is basically the defendant’s version of a complaint.  In an uncontested divorce, however, the defendant is not required to file an answer and is unlikely to file a counterclaim.

When no such action is taken by the defendant after 35 days, the plaintiff’s attorney can file a request for a default judgement which asks for the divorce to be settled without a trial. Finally, the court will hold a hearing to make sure the terms of the divorce are fair.  In most cases, this involves reviewing the property settlement agreement and incorporating it within the final judgement.  The plaintiff is required to be at the hearing and the defendant is advised to be there as well.  Both parties may be asked a series of basic questions pertaining to their marriage and the overall agreement. Once all the paperwork is satisfactorily reviewed, the judge will grant the divorce by signing the finalized judgement.

Filing for Divorce in NJ

If you or your spouse have resided in the state of NJ for at least one year, you are eligible to file for divorce in NJ. You must also have grounds (a legally valid reason) to end your marriage. Grounds may range from adultery and abuse to basic irreconcilable differences. Just like any other lawsuit, divorces must be filed in civil court. The necessary paperwork and procedures you need to follow may vary depending on your circumstances. For example, the procedures for filing for an uncontested divorce (one where both parties agree on the key terms of the divorce) will vary from the procedures of a contested divorce. Furthermore, a divorce involving children and child support issues has additional filing requirements than a divorce involving a childless marriage.

If you are the plaintiff, the person initiating the divorce, the first step to filing for a divorce is collecting and completing the necessary forms that can be obtained from your county’s clerk’s office.  If you live in Monmouth County, your divorce will be processed through the Monmouth County Courthouse located in Freehold. If you live in Ocean County, your divorce will be processed through the Ocean County Courthouse located in Toms River.  Once you have obtained the necessary paperwork, you will need to draft a complaint. A complaint is a legal document that states your reason for the divorce and what you want out of the divorce. The complaint must include the full names and addresses of both spouses and any children from the marriage.  You will also be required to obtain a certification of insurance (a document that lists all insurance policies pertaining to the family) and a case information statement (a document that details all the financial aspects of your case, such as income, living expenses, investments, properties, etc).   A summons must then be prepared in order to notify your spouse that you have filed for a divorce.  Once all these documents have been filed at the correct courthouse, it is time to serve the defendant (your spouse) with the divorce papers. The summons, along with a copy of the complaint, can be mailed to or delivered in person to the defendant.

After the divorce papers have been served, you and your spouse will need to file a property settlement agreement. This document details all the provisions of your divorce, ranging from the division of assets to alimony and child support payments and custody arrangements.

If the divorce is uncontested, the process will be quicker and easier. A final hearing will then be scheduled in which a judge will verify all the completed paperwork, make sure the agreement is fair and sign the final divorce decree.   Once the divorce decree is signed, you are officially divorced. The county clerk will provide you with a copy of your divorce decree which will also be archived in the vital records office in your county courthouse.

Throughout the filing process, it is essential that all paperwork and documents are accurately completed and correctly filed.  An experienced divorce attorney can facilitate and expedite this entire process, from obtaining all the necessary forms to scheduling your final hearing before a judge.