You Filed for Divorce — Now What?

Did you know January is called “Divorce Month” due to an annual uptick in divorce filings at the start of the new year? Filing this month can have its advantages. As we’ve blogged about before (Will Your New Year’s Resolutions Include Divorce?) and as this recent article on divorce points out, filing for divorce now avoids the stress of the holiday season, can make financial record keeping easier, and may be beneficial for tax purposes.

If you are planning to go ahead and file this month, or you just submitted all required documents and paperwork, you may be wondering — what’s next? Filing, hiring a attorneys, and officially declaring your intent to divorce can feel like a relief. But your work isn’t over quite yet, and in most divorce cases, may just be beginning.

Remember, your lawyer is your best source for guiding you through the divorce process, but as a general overview, here’s a rundown of what typically happens next after you file a New Jersey Complaint for Divorce:

Your Case Receives a Docket Number: Once your Complaint is accepted by the court, your case will receive an official docket number. This number will be used in court communication about your divorce matter.

Your Spouse Gets Served: Now called the “defendant” in your divorce matter (you are the plaintiff), the Complaint, summons, and accompanying paperwork, are usually served by the Sheriff’s office in the county where the defendant lives.

Documents will be served to the defendant personally or, according to New Jersey law, can be left at the defendant’s home with any competent household member who is 14 years of age or older. The sheriff’s officer will note the time and date the documents were delivered in a “proof of service” form. This is important because the defendant then has 35 days from this proof of service date to answer or respond in some way to the Complaint.

If the defendant lives in another state, or another country, papers can still be served through the sheriff or another appropriate official or process server in that location (your lawyer can facilitate this). If you don’t know the defendant’s address, your lawyer can help you serve the defendant in another way, such as by sending papers to another person who will probably be in touch with the defendant (i.e., a relative) or by publishing a notice in a newspaper.

The Defendant Answers the Complaint: Unless an extension is requested, the defendant has 35 days to answer the Complaint. The response may come in the form of a an appearance, which simply acknowledges receipt of the complaint and advises the court that the defendant will participate in the case. The defendant can answer the Complaint, which essentially boils down to admitting or denying the claims in your paperwork. The defendant also has the opportunity in his or her response to file allegations against the you (this is called a counterclaim for divorce).

If the defendant decides to file a counterclaim, he or she will file a form that is similar in format to a Complaint, except that it is filed from the point of view of the defendant and offers his or her grounds for divorce. The defendant can base his or her counterclaim on the same grounds for divorce or on different grounds. The defendant can also specify requests for relief, including making claims for child custody and child and/or spousal support.

You Both Fill Out Case Information Statements (CIS): Both defendant and plaintiff complete a Case Information Statement ( “CIS”), a document that provides the courts with a detailed look at the family’s financial circumstances. Supporting documents such as tax returns and recent paystubs must be included in the CIS.  Also included should be listings of assets held by either party, i.e., mutual funds, 401Ks, stocks, real estate, etc. This is information will be used to make decisions about such critical issues as child support, spousal support, and division of assets.

From here, divorce proceedings may continue with a Case Management Conference, a court appearance in which a time frame will be established for the divorce process. Or, divorcing couples may enter mediation where a divorce settlement can be reached with the help of a third-party mediator.

How will your divorce proceed? Working closely with your attorney can help you decide on the divorce road map that best suits your needs and goals for your divorce.