Anyone who has been divorced in New Jersey knows that parties often wait three or four years for a trial date and can spend tens of thousands of dollars during that time. Fortunately, the Supreme Court now seems to understand this, too. On April 5, 1997, the Court implemented sweeping changes in divorce litigation rules that should make the process more efficient and less costly. The reforms were prompted by the report of a State Task Force that spent three years studying complaints voiced by the Bar and divorce litigants. The key changes include the following:
– A “differentiated management system” has been set up so that cases are categorized as priority, complex, expedited, or standard. Factors taken into consideration before track assignment will include the number of issues already resolved by the parties, the length of the marriage, the existence of parenting disputes, and the complexity of the couple’s finances. Before this change, a case that involved a short-term marriage with no children and little money was caught up in the same system as a complex matter involving custody disputes and significant assets. Now, simpler cases can be expedited while complex cases receive the intense judicial attention they need.
– The relationship between attorneys and their clients will be changed. For instance, a “Statement of Client Rights and Responsibilities” must be attached to every retainer agreement now. That statement must include complete information on the attorney’s billing practices. Lawyers may be permitted to withdraw from representation of a client who does not comply with the terms of the retainer agreement. Intimate relationships between attorneys and their clients or adversaries have been deemed inappropriate. Clients must recognize and be responsible for the cost of any action initiated or requested by the client.
– Judges can now order parties to sell their assets (e.g. a house or stocks) to meet litigation expenses, even if the parties themselves have not agreed to do so.
– A Case Information Statement (CIS), which contains complete financial information, must be filed by each party within twenty days after the Defendant’s Answer or Appearance is filed. Failure to file a CIS may result in dismissal of a pleading and default judgment.
– Discovery time periods are to be strictly enforced so that cases can be ready for trial sooner than they are now.
– Page limits for motions in family actions have been established so that parties and attorneys are forced to keep their focus in pre-trial litigation. This change should help judges work more efficiently.
– If a party is found to have violated a parenting order, a judge may order remedies that include compensatory time with the children, economic sanctions, community service, and incarceration, with or without work release.
– If a party is found to have violated an alimony or child support order, a judge may order remedies that include the entering of a judgment, suspension of an occupational license or driver’s license, economic sanctions, community service, and incarceration, with or without work release.
– At the very beginning of a case, with his or her initial pleading, each party in a divorce must provide an Affidavit listing all known insurance coverage of the parties and their minor children, including life, health, car, and homeowner’s insurance. Coverage that was canceled or changed within ninety days must also be identified. Insurance coverage must be maintained during the litigation unless a Court orders otherwise.
– In counties where there are at least four Family Part judges (including Bergen and Passaic), divorce trials must be continuous. In the past, it was not unusual for divorces (which are decided by judges, not juries,) to be tried piecemeal over weeks or months, despite the obvious inconvenience and inefficiency of that.
Medical, psychological, or social work professionals who have provided therapy to any member of the family may not be appointed as expert witnesses.
Divorces are among the most difficult types of litigation to manage. Hopefully, these new rules will make the experience a bit easier for everyone.
Cheryl Morrisey is a Partner at WJ&L, LLP who Practices in Matrimonial and Transactional Litigation areas.