With NJ Courts Closed Can I Still Get A Divorce?

With Trials Suspended, Can You Still Get Divorced?

Almost 30% of judicial positions are currently unfilled in two multi-county court jurisdictions in New Jersey: Vicinage 13 and 15. These vacancies have left the courts overwhelmed, and the fears of local divorce attorneys have come to pass as the courts have opted to suspend divorce and other civil trials in those counties as of February 21, 2023. Jeralyn L. Lawrence, the founder of Lawrence Law and the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, has been quoted extensively on this matter in a variety of media outlets, and the president-elect of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers has said that he does not expect divorce trials to resume until spring 2024 at the earliest. All of this has left many couples wondering whether they can still get divorced.

Which Counties Are Affected?

As of this writing, there are currently seven counties that have suspended divorce trials:

  • Cumberland
  • Gloucester
  • Hudson
  • Hunterdon
  • Salem
  • Somerset
  • Warren

Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties make up Vicinage 13, which has five of its 20 judicial positions currently vacant. Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties make up Vicinage 15, which currently has nine of its 28 judicial seats vacant. Hudson County has unofficially suspended divorce trials on its own. Many New Jersey divorce lawyers have also noted that the vacancies are a statewide problem and that additional jurisdictions may suspend divorce trials in the near future.

Are the Courts Allowing Exceptions?

The courts have said that once the suspensions went into effect that they would only make exceptions for matrimonial cases in very limited circumstances. There has been no elaboration yet on which circumstances would be considered. We do know that the purpose of suspending certain trials is so that the courts can emphasize cases involving crime, domestic violence and juveniles. Perhaps divorce trials ancillary to those cases may be allowed, but the current presumption is that there will be few if any exceptions made for divorce litigation.

Can You Still Get Divorced in New Jersey?

Yes, you absolutely can still get divorced. It’s important to note the distinction between suspended divorce trials and the suspension of officialized divorces altogether, which did not happen. Only about 2% of divorces each year in the State of New Jersey require litigation. If you expect your divorce will need a trial, then the recourse would be to get an exception, which is unlikely, or wait until the suspensions are lifted. This may be more than a year from now. Family law attorneys advise avoiding divorce litigation if at all possible at all times and certainly now under these circumstances. There are a few alternatives for you to consider:

  • Collaborative divorce
  • Divorce mediation
  • Divorce arbitration

What Is a Collaborative Divorce?

Collaborative divorce is a team-based approach to a divorce settlement. Both spouses enter into the process by signing a participation agreement that reflects their willingness to collaborate in an official manner. Each spouse has their own divorce attorney, and those attorneys sign the agreement as well, requiring them to withdraw if the case ends up going to court. Depending on the complexity of the marriage, it’s often necessary to involve various experts, such as financial specialists and custody counselors, who provide the information needed for the couples and their respective lawyers to come to an agreement. The overall goal is to reach an accord that allows for an ultimately uncontested divorce.

What Is Divorce Mediation?

Divorce mediation is another form of alternate dispute resolution. Divorces involving mediation are often referred to as amicable divorces because they’re generally only feasible when there is a great deal of goodwill between the spouses. In most cases, the spouses will not have a divorce lawyer specific to them but will rather work with family law attorneys as a partnership toward a mutually beneficial settlement. Upon reaching an amicable resolution, the mediator prepares a memorandum of understanding. This agreement is nonbinding but serves as the foundation for a binding uncontested divorce agreement. It’s notable that as much as 99% of all divorce cases each year in New Jersey achieve a resolution through mediation.

What Is Divorce Arbitration?

Divorce arbitration is similar to divorce litigation but is heard and tried by an arbitrator as opposed to a judge in a courtroom, and the arbitrator is often a retired judge. Instead of a courtroom, a private and neutral setting is chosen. The time and place are designed to be convenient for both spouses. Although most collaborative divorces and divorce mediations succeed, those that fail will often transition to arbitration in order to achieve a resolution without going before a judge. Some divorces will begin with arbitration, and they often involve high-net worth couples or marriages that present legal complexities.

Is a Collaborative Divorce Right for Your Situation?

Family lawyers deem collaborative divorce to be the preferable option if possible as it gives the spouses complete control. They have final say within the context of what is equitable and will not have a decision forced upon them. All of the meetings generally occur at an attorney’s office, and the couple has full control over the scheduling. Collaborative divorce is generally considered the easiest approach in terms of the stress involved and the emotional toll, and it is generally the most affordable option involving a lawyer.

Should You Consider Divorce Mediation?

Compared to a collaborative divorce, the spouses do give up a bit of control as the mediator navigates the couple through the negotiations, but this is not necessarily a negative if there are some challenging matters to agree on. Mediation costs can be similar to a collaborative approach, but they can also be higher depending on how much time is required and which experts are needed. That being said, most mediated divorces require two or three sessions that take several hours or so, and as mentioned earlier, the vast number of divorces in New Jersey are resolved through this method.

What About Divorce Arbitration?

Compared to a collaborative or mediated divorce, the biggest negative associated with divorce arbitration is the ultimate loss of control. Divorce arbitration can be described as a middle ground between mediation and a trial. If the couple is agreeing and working together, the arbitrator may just go along with that. But the arbitrator makes the decisions and has the final say, and those decisions are binding. The only exception would be if a judge reviews the decision and rejects it on some grounds. Some advantages of arbitration as opposed to a trial are that the cost is lower and the couple gets to preserve their privacy.

The Legal Assistance You Need to Get Divorced in New Jersey

If you live in New Jersey and want to end your marriage but are worried that the court closures may affect you, Lawrence Law is here to help. Our family lawyers have handled many different types of divorce cases. While this is certainly a unique time, we have the experience and resources needed to explore the options available to you and to help you choose the best path forward. To schedule an appointment at either our Red Bank office in Monmouth County or our Watchung office in Somerset County, call us at 908-645-1000 or submit the contact form on our website.

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