Ah, before the pandemic… It was a simpler time. Things were more predictable when the Courts were operating normally. After a case was settled, the parties would appear in Court for what is known as an “uncontested hearing.” At that hearing, the Court would put the parties under oath and take testimony on a few issues, primarily: (1) cause of action for divorce; (2) jurisdiction; and (3) whether the settlement agreement had been entered knowingly and voluntarily.
In most cases, the cause of action pled by the parties is the no-fault grounds of “irreconcilable differences” under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2(i). On that basis, the Court can grant a judgment of divorce if irreconcilable differences have caused the breakdown of the marriage for a period of at least six months and there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation. Easy enough, right? Testimony on this issue is usually quite brief.
Jurisdiction is also relatively straightforward. Under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-10, the Court has the authority to grant a judgment of divorce when either you or your spouse has been a resident of the State of New Jersey for at least one year preceding the filing of a complaint. If the cause of action is adultery, there is no specific requirement for the length of time you have resided in New Jersey. If jurisdiction was a significant issue in the case, it probably would not have made it all the way to an uncontested hearing. Again, testimony on this issue usually quite brief.
Testimony related to the settlement agreement, however, can be more extensive. Among other things, the Court needs to confirm the following: (1) you signed the agreement; (2) you read it; (3) you understood it; (5) you were not drunk, high, or suffering from a mental condition that would have impaired your ability to understand the agreement; (4) you were not forced in any manner; (5) you believe the agreement to be fair and equitable; (6) there are no side agreements; (6) you intend to comply; and (7) you knowingly waived the right to a trial. For obvious reasons, the bulk of testimony at an uncontested hearing is addressed to these issues.
Assuming the parties’ testimony during the uncontested hearing checked all the right boxes, the Court would enter a Judgment of Divorce that same day. But as a result of the pandemic, things have changed a little bit. As of the date of this post, there are no physical court appearances in Family Part cases. Instead, hearings are being conducted by phone and videoconference. In some cases, as with uncontested hearing, the Court has established procedures to avoid the hearing altogether.
Specifically, on June 5, 2020, the Administrative Office of the Courts (“AOC”) issued Directive #18-20. You can obtain a copy of the Directive from the New Jersey Courts website here: https://www.njcourts.gov/notices/2020/n200608a.pdf?c=I4W. Thereunder, the Court has been given instructions “for the entry of default and uncontested judgments without personal appearances in certain dissolution (FM) proceedings.” These procedures are available only in the following circumstances:
- Divorce/dissolution of the marriage, civil union, domestic partnership, or complaint for annulment with no additional request for relief.
- Divorce/dissolution of the marriage, civil union, domestic partnership, or complaint for annulment with a signed property settlement agreement or the continuation of final orders entered in other proceedings resolving all issues of equitable distribution, custody, parenting time, and child support, with no outstanding issues or assets that need to be addressed by the court.
- Divorce/dissolution of the marriage or complaint for annulment and a request by the plaintiff to resume any name used before the marriage or assume any surname, consistent with N.J.S.A. 2A:34-21.
If the case has been resolved by a signed settlement agreement, the Court is now encouraged to waive even a virtual appearance and to enter a judgment of divorce based on certifications filed by the parties. In fact, a form certification has been issued with various checkboxes to ensure the appropriate information has been submitted regarding the settlement (see above).
Once the Court has received the signed agreement and the required certifications, court staff will review the documents submitted. If the documents are incomplete, court staff will send a deficiency notice to your attorney requiring that it be corrected. If the deficiencies are not satisfied within ten (10) days or at the discretion of the judge, the case will proceed with the requirement of a court appearance. If the documents appear to be in order, the case will be forwarded to a judge for review within five (5) days of the submission. If the judge is satisfied, the judgment of divorce will be signed and mailed to the plaintiff’s attorney, who must then send a copy to the defendant or the defendant’s attorney.
So, can you get an uncontested divorce during the COVID-19 pandemic? The short answer is “yes.” In many ways, it’s easier than ever.