New Jersey Divorce Laws

If you live in New Jersey and are thinking about divorce, familiarizing yourself with New Jersey divorce law is an important first step. And if you’re considering representing yourself, it’s not just important . . . it’s crucial.

By , Retired Judge

If you're facing a divorce in New Jersey, it pays to do your homework. Whether you plan to hire a lawyer or get a do-it-yourself divorce, you're going to have to make some decisions, and you should know what to expect. So the more you can familiarize yourself with New Jersey divorce laws, the further ahead of the game you'll be.

New Jersey Laws on Qualifying for Divorce

There are two initial requirements for getting a New Jersey divorce: You you need a legally accepted reason for ending your marriage, and you must meet the state's residency requirement.

Grounds for Divorce in New Jersey

Like all states, New Jersey requires that you have a "ground" for divorce, meaning a legally acceptable reason for ending the marriage. New Jersey law includes both "fault" and "no-fault" divorce grounds. Fault grounds apply when you're accusing your spouse of wrongdoing, such as desertion, adultery, or mental or physical cruelty. No-fault grounds come into play when neither spouse is blaming the other for the breakdown of the marriage.

There are two grounds for no-fault divorce in New Jersey:

  • you and your spouse have been living separate and apart, in different "habitations," for at least 18 consecutive months, or
  • the two of you have "irreconcilable differences" (basically meaning you can't get along) that have caused your marriage to break down for a period of six months, and there's no reasonable prospect of getting back together.

(N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A-34:2 (2022).)

Because your spouse is likely to contest claims of misconduct when you choose one of the fault-based divorce grounds, you're almost always better off filing for a no-fault divorce, in the interest of saving time, money, and increased anxiety.

Residency Requirement for a New Jersey Divorce

In order to get a New Jersey divorce, either you or your spouse must have been a resident of the state for at least one year just before your file your divorce papers. The only exception to this year-long residency requirement is when you're seeking a fault divorce based on your spouse's adultery. (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A-34:10 (2022).)

How to File for Divorce in New Jersey

The way to start a New Jersey divorce is by filing a divorce "complaint" with the court. This document will include information about your New Jersey residency, your grounds for divorce, and the different issues you want addressed in your divorce judgment (like child custody, financial support, and the division of your property and debts). When you fill out the complaint, you're the "plaintiff," and your spouse is the "defendant."

There are different forms for the complaint, depending on your grounds for divorce. For example:

Along with the complaint, you'll also need to complete and file some other documents, including:

  • a summons
  • a certification of verification and non-collusion
  • a certification of self-represented litigant and dispute resolution alternatives
  • a certification regarding redaction of personal identifiers
  • a confidential litigant information sheet, and
  • a certification of insurance coverage.

You can find some of the forms you'll need to start the divorce process at the New Jersey Court's online self-help center. Legal Services of New Jersey has a divorce kit, with instructions and forms, available for a small fee. If you have an uncontested divorce (more on that below), you also have the option of using an online divorce service that will supply the correct forms and complete them for you, based on your answers to a questionnaire.

Once you've completed all the forms, you'll need to file them with to the Family Division court clerk's office in the New Jersey county where you resided when your ground for divorce (also called a "cause of action") happened. If you didn't live in New Jersey when that happened, file the divorce papers in the New Jersey county where your spouse resided at that time. If neither of you were residents when the cause of action arose, you'll file in the New Jersey county where you currently reside. (N. J. Rules of Ct., rule 5:7-1 (2022).)

The court requires that you file an original and two copies of your documents, but it's a good idea to make a couple of additional copies just in case. You should provide the clerk's office with a self-addressed stamped envelope so they can give you a copy marked "filed."

You also have the option of filing your divorce papers electronically.

The Cost of Filing for Divorce in New Jersey

Courts charge a fee to file for divorce. The fee was $300 as of 2022. But it's always subject to change, so check the court's current filing fees page, which also has information on how to apply for a waiver if you can't afford to pay the fee.

Overview of the Divorce Process in New Jersey

After you've filed your initial divorce papers, the process of getting a final divorce in New Jersey depends in large part on whether your case is "contested" or "uncontested."

Uncontested Divorce in New Jersey

To get an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse must agree about all the issues involved in ending your marriage, including:

  • how you'll divide your marital property and debts
  • whether one spouse will pay alimony (spousal support) and if so, how much and for how long, and
  • if you have minor children together, your arrangements for child custody, visitation (parenting time), and child support.

Many couples attempt to settle any disputes before they file for divorce, often with the help of mediation. If mediation is successful, the mediator will prepare a document than can form the basis for a marital settlement agreement (also known as a "property settlement agreement" in New Jersey). Having this document makes the rest of the divorce process relatively simple, and you can ask the judge to include the agreement in the judgment of divorce.

After you've filed your paperwork, there are several more basic steps for getting your uncontested divorce in New Jersey.

  • Serving the complaint. Once the court clerk provides you with a copy of the filed complaint, you need to serve your spouse with the complaint, a summons, and a proof of service. The easiest way to do this is to mail or hand over the documents and have your spouse sign an Acknowledgment of Service. Otherwise, you'll generally have to arrange for a a sheriff or process server hand-deliver them to your spouse at home or work. (Check with the sheriff or process server to find out how much they charge for this service.) If you haven't been able to serve your spouse this way, ask the court clerk about alternative methods of service, like publishing a notice in a newspaper. (N.J. Rules of Ct., rules 4:4-3, 4:4-4, 4:4-5 (2022).)
  • Answering the complaint. Your spouse normally has 35 days to respond after receiving the divorce papers. In an uncontested divorce, your spouse should simply file a form called an "Appearance." There's a fee to file this form (currently $175).
  • Finalizing the divorce. You may ask the court to grant your final divorce without a hearing if you've filed for an uncontested divorce and have submitted your signed, notarized settlement agreement. You and your spouse will need to sign and submit a "Request for Entry of an Uncontested Divorce Without a Court Appearance." If all your documents are in order, your file will be forwarded to a judge for review. The judge will then sign your final divorce judgment unless there are some questions or problems, in which case you may have to appear at a hearing. A similar procedure is available if your spouse didn't respond to your divorce complaint, and you want a default divorce. (For details on the procedures and required documents, see Directive #18-20 from the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts).

Contested Divorce in New Jersey

When you and your spouse have disputes over any issues in your case, your case will move ahead as a contested divorce.

Both you and your spouse will have to complete and file a Family Case Information Statement within 20 days after the defendant spouse files an Answer or Appearance. (N.J. Rules of Ct., rule 5:5-2 (2022).) This form calls for a lot of details about your income and assets. You need to complete it as thoroughly as possible. And you must be honest. There are serious consequences for hiding assets during a divorce.

New Jersey courts attempt to help couples resolve their disputes as their divorce case proceeds, and court rules require them to participate in mediation of certain issues. (Learn more about mandatory and voluntary divorce mediation in New Jersey.)

Most couples are able to reach agreement on the issues at some point during the divorce process, usually with the help of their lawyers, a mediator, or both. But if they don't, they'll have to go to trial to have a judge decide the issues for them. Some disputes are more difficult to resolve than others. Without an agreement, New Jersey law will guide judges in their decisions on these issues:

  • Child support. This is usually the easiest issue to resolve, because New Jersey law provides formulas for calculating child support, which are generally based on the spouses' income and the amount of time a child will spend with each parent.
  • Child custody. Parents often find it more difficult to agree about custody and visitation, in part because these issues can be so emotionally charged. Settlement can be further complicated by any allegations—or documented history—of spousal or child abuse (domestic violence) by either parent. The bottom line is that New Jersey child custody laws require judges to make sure that custody agreements and orders are in the best interests of the children. (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 9:2-4 (c) (2022).)
  • Property and debts. New Jersey law requires an "equitable division" of marital property and debts. That means that the judge will decide what's fair under the circumstances of your case. Unlike what you'd see in a "community property" state like Nevada, equitable distribution doesn't necessarily result in a 50-50 split. (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A-34:23.1 (2022).)
  • Alimony. It's not a given in New Jersey that a spouse will receive alimony. In determining whether alimony should be awarded, and in what amount, a judge will look at a number of factors, such as a spouse's actual need and the other spouse's ability to pay, the length of the marriage, the spouses' ages and mental and physical health, and the standard of living during the marriage. (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A-34:23(b) (2022).) As a general rule, judges won't consider marital fault in determining whether to award alimony.

Contested divorces tend to be very expensive. (Think legal fees.) The cost of divorce climbs as cases drag on without a settlement—and the bills are highest for couples who need a trial to resolve their issues.

How Long Does a Divorce Take in New Jersey?

The amount of time it will take to complete your case will largely depend on the type of divorce. Obviously, an uncontested divorce will take less time than a contested one, because the spouses have resolved all their issues. So there's nothing left to fight about.

  • Uncontested divorces in New Jersey can conceivably be finalized in under two months. That will depend on how quickly your spouse responded to the divorce complaint, as well as the court's caseload in the county where you filed the complaint.
  • Contested divorces typically take much longer—usually close to a year or more. Exactly how long will depend the number and type of disputes with your spouse, how long it takes you to work out a settlement, and whether you will need to go to trial.

Should You Represent Yourself in a New Jersey Divorce?

You certainly have the right to represent yourself in your divorce. But whether you should do that is a different matter. Self-representation (known as appearing "pro se") is most practical when you have an uncontested case, or you have no minor or dependent children and very few assets. But when you have nasty custody disputes or complicated finances, you're probably better off hiring a lawyer. Divorce laws can be quite complicated. A qualified divorce attorney will understand how the law works, as well as the ins-and-outs of the court system.

Remember, you'll probably have to live with the results of your case long after the divorce is over. If, down the road, you realize you made a mistake, there's no guarantee you'll be able to correct it. So it pays to get it right the first time.

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