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Family and Relationships

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Home Page > Family and Relationships > Divorce > Divorce in New Jersey: A Self-Help Guide

A. Preface

 

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Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) coordinates the statewide Legal Services system in New Jersey, providing free legal assistance to lower-income people in civil matters. Part of Legal Services’ mission is to make people more aware of their legal rights and provide helpful information if they choose to pursue a legal case on their own. Awareness may allow you to resolve some problems on your own, without the need for a lawyer, or to make better use of a lawyer if you have one.


Important Notes About Using This Manual

Legal Services of New Jersey makes this publication available for people who cannot afford legal advice or representation. It may not be sold or used commercially by others. You may copy the forms in this manual for personal use only. No other part of this manual may be reproduced without permission.

This manual gives you general information about representing yourself in a divorce. Only a lawyer can give you specific advice about your case and help you protect all of your rights. By providing this information, we are not acting as your lawyer. Always talk to a lawyer, if you can, before taking legal action.

The information and instructions in this manual are accurate as of March 2012. Please check back here for updates.

 

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Important Information About Doing Your Own Divorce

This manual cannot provide specific advice about your divorce. It is not a substitute for having an attorney. A lawyer can give you specific advice about your case and help you protect all of your rights. Getting a divorce can be complicated. In the situations listed under Getting Legal Advice, it may be best to have a lawyer represent you in your divorce.

If you have questions about the court or are having problems getting information from court staff, you may contact the court ombudsman. Each county courthouse has an ombudsman assigned to the job of explaining court procedures, programs, and services; offering guidance to unrepresented litigants; making referrals to social services or other local agencies; and resolving complaints. The ombudsman may not give you legal advice. Statewide Ombudsman Contact Information (from New Jersey Courts).

If you are receiving public benefits, we recommend that you call LSNJ-LAW™, LSNJ’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529) for advice about how a divorce might affect your benefits. Hotline hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The term public benefits refers to financial assistance that some low-income families or individuals may be eligible to receive from local, county, or federal government. Public benefits include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), General Assistance (GA), and Emergency Assistance (EA). Other benefits include Food Stamps (FS), Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). These programs all have limits on the amount of income and assets a person may have in order to qualify for the benefits. If you are receiving public benefits and your income or other assets increase (including child support, alimony, or property from a property settlement), you have a duty to report the increase to the public agency that provides the benefit. Failure to do this may result in sanctions or fines. For that reason, if you are receiving such benefits, it is important to speak with an attorney about the effects of a divorce on your continued eligibility for those benefits.

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A Special Note About Civil Unions

A civil union is the legal union of a same-sex couple. In New Jersey, couples in civil unions and spouses (husbands and wives) in marriages all have the same legal rights. Dissolution is the word used under New Jersey law to describe the legal ending of a civil union. Divorces and civil union dissolutions use the same procedures. This manual is written as if you are the party seeking to end a marriage or civil union. It also explains how to respond if you are the party being sued. The printed edition of this manual contains forms and explains how to file for divorce or dissolution in New Jersey based on irreconcilable differences, separation, desertion, or extreme cruelty. The forms are ready for use by both spouses and civil union partners. The terms “marriage,” “divorce,” and “spouse” still appear in some places of this manual. Simply substitute “civil union,” “dissolution,” or “civil union partner” for these terms as you read them.

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Getting Legal Advice

If you fit into any of the situations listed below, it is strongly recommended that you get advice from a lawyer before you decide to handle your divorce on your own. These situations may involve complex issues. Having a lawyer may help you to better protect your rights.

  • You have been injured by your spouse and have a claim against him or her for money damages. This is known as a Tevis claim.
  • There is a history of domestic violence against you or another family member. If you are a victim of domestic violence, you should be especially cautious once you file for divorce because that is a time when violence is likely to increase or start again.
  • You and your spouse disagree about who should have physical custody of the children.
  • You and your spouse own real estate property of significant value.
  • You and your spouse own personal property of significant value.
  • You (or your spouse or child) are receiving public benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), General Assistance (GA), Emergency Assistance (EA), Food Stamps (FS), Medicaid, or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and you are worried that getting alimony (also called spousal support), property, or support from a divorce may affect your eligibility for those public benefits.
  • You will be seeking alimony.
  • You or your spouse have a large pension.
  • You or your spouse are involved in a personal injury lawsuit.
  • You know that your spouse is likely to hire or has hired a lawyer to contest (object to) the divorce or any agreements you have made.
  • Your spouse lives in a foreign country.
  • Your spouse is in the military.

Please note that it may be difficult to handle your own divorce if:

  • You don’t know where your spouse lives and you don’t know anyone else who knows. (See Service on a Defendant Whose Address Is Unknown.)
  • Your spouse is in the military or lives in a foreign country. Some information is provided on how to serve a defendant in a foreign country; however, you may want to seek legal help if the defendant does not live in the United States.This manual does not provide instructions for handling a divorce when a spouse is in the military. You should seek legal help if your spouse is in the military.

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Dispute Resolution Alternatives

Dispute resolution alternatives are ways of settling lawsuits other than by trials or hearings. The primary forms of dispute resolution are mediation and arbitration.

You may read more about dispute resolution alternatives by reviewing Form 2A. You must get information about the alternate ways of settling lawsuits before you file your complaint or answer and counterclaim for divorce. The court now requires you to sign and file with your complaint or answer and counterclaim for divorce a special certification (sworn statement) claiming that you have received this information. (Form 2B)

If there has been no domestic violence and you are comfortable meeting with your spouse and a third party to try to reach an agreement about property, support, custody, or parenting time (also called visitation) issues before you file your papers in court, you might consider seeking help from a mediator, arbitrator, or other skilled professional. Using the services of this independent third party to reach an agreement may save you money and time. Some mediators or arbitrators are also attorneys. An attorney who is acting as a mediator or arbitrator should never represent either of you in a divorce action and should not help you file for divorce. Even if you decide not to get a lawyer to represent you in your divorce, you and your spouse should each have your own lawyer review any settlement agreement that you reach through mediation or arbitration before you sign such an agreement. Even if you resolve your differences through a dispute resolution alternative, you must still file papers with the court in order to get a divorce.

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How to Get a Lawyer or Mediator to Help You

If you are a low-income New Jersey resident, you may be eligible for legal help from a Legal Services office in your area. You may also be eligible for free legal advice from LSNJ-LAW™, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline. The hotline telephone number is 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888- 576-5529). Hotline hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Online intake is now available. If you are not eligible for assistance from Legal Services, the hotline will refer you to other possible resources. To obtain a private lawyer, call the lawyer referral service of your county bar association.

For more information about private mediators in New Jersey, call the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators at 1-800-981-4800, or go to their website. To learn more about court mediators, call (609) 984-4228 or see Program for Mediation of Economic Aspects of Family Law Cases (from New Jersey Courts).

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Acknowledgments

This edition of the manual was updated by LSNJ Senior Attorney Deborah Fennelly, who did the research, writing, and forms creation for the previous editions. Susan Perger, LSNJ Publications Director, was responsible for editing, design, layout, and production. Special thanks to LSNJ Chief Section Counsel Mary M. McManus-Smith for her review of this edition and to Tricia Simpson-Curtin and Alyce Garver for their help with proofing and forms modification.

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Low-income New Jerseyans can get free legal help by phone: call our toll-free hotline at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529), Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Outside of New Jersey, please call 732-572-9100 and ask to be transferred to the hotline.