First, remain calm. Do not panic. You have time to respond. In New Jersey, once you are served with a Complaint for Divorce, you have 35 days to respond to it. Take this time to get organized! If you have not already done so, start to gather information that will assist in your case. Specifically, make a list of all of the assets/liabilities acquired since marriage. If you are able, also locate current account statements for the assets/liabilities contained on your list. If you have pre-marital assets, also make a list of those assets and locate statements to evidence the date you acquired those assets. Finally, locate your most recent paystubs and your last three income tax returns.
If you elect to proceed with an attorney, take this time to interview potential attorneys. The initial consultation should assist you to understand the divorce process, allow you to determine your comfort level with that attorney and help identify your goals moving forward. Make sure that you show off your organizational skills and bring with you to your initial consultation the lists that you made and the documents that you gathered. Being prepared for your initial consultation will help you get the maximum benefit from your consultation.
Next, answer the Complaint for Divorce. Once you have answered the Complaint, you are officially “in” the case. Once both parties are “in” the case, the court will schedule deadlines for the completion of discovery. Specifically, the court will tell you when you need to exchange financial information with your spouse and when you need to retain an expert, if needed, for your matter. The court generally gives you approximately three months to exchange this information.
Once the information is exchanged and you believe that you have enough information from your spouse, the court will schedule you for a mandatory settlement conference, which is called the Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel. Prior to appearing for this panel, you will be required to submit your settlement position to two volunteer panelists who will evaluate the merits of your settlement position. At the panel, the two volunteer panelists will assist you and your spouse in attempting to settle your case.
If you are unable to settle your case at the panel, some judges will refer your matter to economic mediation, where you and your spouse will spend time with a private mediator to attempt to settle your matter.
If you are unable to settle your matter with the private mediator, then the judge will order you to appear in court for an Intensive Settlement Conference, where the judge will attempt to assist you in settling your case.
If you are still unable to reach a resolution, then your matter will be listed for trial. At trial, you will present testimony and evidence as to why your position should be meritorious. In New Jersey, statistically, about only 2% of cases go to trial.