Divorce can be a difficult and challenging time for many New Jersey couples, and while some of them may be able to quickly reach a resolution to their dispute, many others remain far apart on key issues, including child support or asset division. At the same time, divorce litigation can be expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining. Arbitration is one solution that allows the outcome of your contested divorce to be decided by a qualified professional who has family law experience, with quicker resolutions and shorter wait times.
Divorce arbitration is different than a mediated or collaborative divorce, where both parties and their divorce lawyers work together to seek a mutually acceptable solution. These alternative dispute resolution methods can be excellent options for couples that are highly motivated to reach a settlement and have less contention between them. However, divorce arbitration is a different process.
In mediation, a neutral third party attempts to bring both spouses to a mutually amenable resolution, settling the divorce before it proceeds to litigation. Conversely, in arbitration, a qualified arbitrator hears the case and reaches a decision at the end of the hearing. Instead of a family court judge ruling on the key disputed issues, the arbitrator makes those binding decisions.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey recognizes arbitration as an alternative to conventional courtroom litigation. In many cases, estranged spouses may face significant wait times in obtaining a hearing or receiving a final divorce decree with a determination of major issues. Especially when issues like child custody still need to be resolved, this kind of delay in the court system can make the already challenging process even more emotionally draining.
In divorce arbitration, much like in the courtroom, you would be represented by a divorce lawyer advocating for your interests. In some cases, the arbitrator is a retired judge while in others, it is an attorney with relevant family law experience. While divorce arbitration may seem like a way to resolve straightforward cases, its non-public nature may make it an exceptional fit for cases with higher levels of difficulty as well.
For example, people with complex financial investments may be more able to effectively present evidence to a knowledgeable arbitrator to make decisions about these issues. It can also be a choice for people with higher profiles who would like to keep their divorce proceedings out of the public eye. One or both of you may wish to avoid news coverage or intrusive speculation about the issues at stake.
Timing is one of the most important issues driving many people to opt for arbitration. The estranged spouses choose when and where the arbitration takes place, rather than being at the mercy of the court scheduling system. A divorce arbitration can also be scheduled on subsequent days while a divorce trial might take place over a period of months, with one or two sessions a month and other cases preceding or following the hearing. Divorce arbitration hearings may be scheduled for full-day sessions in order to handle the maximum number of issues in a more compressed period of time.
Confidentiality is another significant advantage of divorce arbitration. As divorce trials are public, personal matters or financial issues may be publicly disclosed that some clients would prefer to keep private. Businesspeople may be concerned about releasing future projections for their company or revealing internal operations, especially if a jointly-owned business is at stake during the property division phase. Arbitration keeps this information out of the public eye while still allowing parties who are far apart on some issues to finalize their divorces.
You may be interested in staying out of court during your divorce, but it may seem impossible to reach a mutually-acceptable settlement through negotiations. While you and your spouse, working together with your divorce attorneys, will need to agree on the form the arbitration will take, the major underlying issues will be decided by the arbitrator. You do not have to agree with one another; you only need to agree to abide by the decisions of the arbitrator.
In many cases, divorce arbitration may be less costly than a courtroom trial. While each party will still need to pay their own lawyer as well as their portion of the arbitrator’s fees, the extensive scheduling and lengthy process involved in courtroom trials often lead to greater fees costs. During the arbitration, both parties will be represented by their family law attorneys. You may bring in expert witnesses and present evidence to the arbitrator. In essence, divorce arbitration is still a trial before a decision-maker; it is just a private alternative on a typically compressed time frame.
If you and your divorce attorney discuss arbitration as an option, there are several issues to consider. First, your spouse and their family law attorney must also agree to pursue arbitration as an alternative to the courtroom process. However, due to the stated advantages of arbitration, it may be far easier to reach an agreement to pursue arbitration than to resolve the underlying issues.
Both parties and their respective lawyers must agree on key aspects of the arbitration. First, they can choose the arbitrator. You may wish to select an attorney who has been certified by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers for their experience in family law cases. You can also look for arbitrators with experience in certain areas of the law. For example, if complex financial issues will be presented in your case, an arbitrator with experience in financial disputes may be preferable.
You will also decide whether the arbitrator’s decision will be subject to appeal. Arbitration awards in divorce are legally binding, but they could be appealed if both parties decide to do so. The appeal process would also be decided upon in advance of the arbitration. It should be noted here that due to the state’s inherent interest in the welfare and rights of children, child custody matters are always subject to review by a court.
There are also procedural decisions to make before beginning arbitration. The two parties will need to determine whether they need a court reporter or if the hearing can be audio recorded only, if the standard rules of evidence will apply, and whether one or both parties will pay the arbitrator’s fees. Arbitration decisions can be enforced by a court; for example, if one party fails to pay support or abide by a custody order, the other party can go to court to ensure their rights are protected. Their rights are not diminished because the order was issued in arbitration rather than after a trial.
During the arbitration hearing itself, with the time and place decided by the parties, both spouses and their lawyers can bring expert witnesses, present evidence and introduce documents to the arbitrator, who will announce the date of its decision. In most cases, they will issue a final decision within 30 to 45 days after the hearing. This is a much-expedited timeline in comparison to a trial.
If you are facing a contested divorce but want a private solution with a faster outcome, divorce arbitration may be a good option to consider. Contact Jeralyn Lawrence at Lawrence Law to learn more about divorce arbitration. You can call our offices at 908-645-1000 or use our online contact form to request an appointment. We have offices in Somerset and Monmouth counties.