In the movie “Sweet Home Alabama,” the character played by Reese Witherspoon travels from New York to Alabama in an attempt to have her estranged husband sign off on their divorce papers shortly before her scheduled wedding to another man. Ultimately, while the estranged husband signs the papers, Ms. Witherspoon’s Melanie does not, and her lawyer is forced to run down the aisle at Melanie’s wedding, waving the papers, yelling for Melanie to sign and finalize her divorce before she says her “I do’s.” While we won’t spoil the ending of the movie, films and television shows like this often wrongly imply that the actual finalization of a divorce is simple as signing a sheet of paper.
While the processes may vary from county to county, the same general route is followed in order to finalize, or “put through,” a divorce in New Jersey.
Once you have reached a general consensus with your spouse as to how the issues incident to your divorce are to be resolved, and have likely confirmed this consensus in a short signed document known as a “term sheet,” the first piece of the process to finalize your agreement is to prepare a document commonly known as either a Marital Settlement Agreement or a Property Settlement Agreement. This document, prepared collaboratively by counsel, fully explains all the rights and responsibilities that both you and your spouse will have once your divorce is finalized.
Of course, the terms of each settlement differ in each individual case, as the contents are specifically based on the issues unique to each divorcing couple. However, some common issues that are frequently addressed include:
- Legal and physical child custody determinations;
- Parenting time schedules;
- Provisions for the payment of child support and/or alimony;
- Property division, including distribution of the marital home, vehicles, bank accounts, retirement funds, and debts; and
- Insurances, including health insurance and life insurance.
The written agreement will explain, in full detail, the arrangements made by you and your spouse with respect to each issue incident to your divorce. Often, a number of drafts of the agreement will be written and exchanged between counsel before all parties agree on the final version. Before consenting to its final form and signing the agreement, you will go through the document in detail with your attorney, making sure you understand each and every aspect of your settlement, and ensuring that it includes all the terms of your agreement. Only when that has been done should you sign the agreement, because once signed, your Marital Settlement Agreement is binding.
When a signed agreement is in place, counsel will notify the Court that your divorce has been settled. At that point in time, the Court will schedule an “uncontested hearing,” which is the hearing at which you will be officially divorced.
While awaiting the uncontested hearing date, counsel will prepare a document known as a Judgment of Divorce, which is the actual document memorializing your divorce and to which your Marital Settlement Agreement will be attached. The Judgment of Divorce is signed and file-stamped by the judge at the hearing, and together, the Judgment of Divorce and Marital Settlement Agreement comprise the entirety of your divorce settlement agreement.
Once the date of the uncontested hearing arrives, the Marital Settlement Agreement will be placed into evidence so that you and your spouse can answer the basic questions necessary for the court to finalize your divorce. The judge will listen to your answers – given under oath – to determine whether you believe the agreement to be fair and whether you are voluntarily entering into the agreement. However, the judge will not review the agreement itself, nor make any decision as to whether he or she believes the agreement to be fair.
These questions may include, but are not limited to:
- Have you had the opportunity to read the agreement?
- Do you fully understand the agreement?
- Did you have the opportunity to review the agreement with your attorney in detail, and ask any questions you may have had?
- Were your questions answered to your satisfaction?
- Do you believe the agreement to be a fair and reasonable agreement, recognizing that the agreement is a product of compromise by you and your spouse?
- Are you prepared to be bound by the agreement?
- Are you entering into the agreement voluntarily?
- Are you under the influence of any drugs or alcohol that impair your ability to understand the agreement and what is happening in court today? What about at the time you signed the agreement?
- Will you be able to maintain a standard of living reasonably comparable to the marital standard of living?
- Are you satisfied with your attorney’s services and the services of his/her firm?
If you are paying alimony or child support, or waiving certain financial rights, your attorney may also ask you questions about those issues. In addition, your attorney will ask questions about where you live in order to establish venue, and will ask questions aimed at confirming the reason for your divorce, also known as the “cause of action” or “grounds for divorce.” Lastly, if you are changing your name, your attorney will ask a few questions intended to confirm that your reasons for changing your name are personal and are not intended to avoid bankruptcy, creditors, or criminal prosecution.
Once both parties have completed this questioning, the judge will usually confirm that the case is before the appropriate court, that the parties have voluntarily entered into their settlement agreement and believe it to be fair under the circumstances, and that the grounds for divorce have been suitably established. The judge will then sign the Judgment of Divorce and confirm that your divorce has been granted.
Hollywood isn’t real life. While movies and TV may make the process of finalizing a divorce as simple as signing a sheet of paper, the reality is that it takes time to ensure your agreement is complete and that the court has an opportunity to render a ruling at an uncontested hearing.
The attorneys at Paras, Apy & Reiss, P.C. have nearly 125 years of experience representing the interests of family law clients in New Jersey, including settling divorce cases, drafting settlement agreements, and attending uncontested hearings. Please give us a call at (732) 219-9000 to see how we can assist you in finalizing your divorce matter.
The information in this article is not intended as legal advice. For legal advice, you should consult your attorney.