New Jersey Divorce Without a Lawyer?

NJ Divorce Lawyer, Carl Taylor

Sometimes prospective clients will ask me if they really need a lawyer. Hiring a divorce lawyer in New Jersey is expensive and in the age of Google I understand the desire for DIY. In this blog post I’m going to address some of my feelings on the “Rise of the Pro Se” litigant. These are just my opinions.

First, the simple truth is this: I would not do my job if I did not believe I was helping people. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t believe my job had a purpose and that we provide value to our clients.

That does not mean I am the right lawyer for everybody or that our team is the right fit for all potential clients. It also doesn’t mean that everybody contemplating a New Jersey Divorce requires their own independent counsel.

I personally believe, however, that getting the right lawyer for you is very important. Part of the reason why our firm’s divorce consults are so long is that both sides need to get to know one another and if they would be a good fit working together. Many divorces can be very emotional and there is a lot of teamwork between attorney and client.

Even though I am a lawyer, I have used other lawyers for relatively simple matters such as having my will drawn up and buying my home. I paid money to make sure I used the right professional, someone who was familiar with that area of the law–an area that I am not familiar with as I generally limit my practice to divorce and family law. In other words, I thought it a good investment even though I am a lawyer and could have likely muddled through that work without incident.

I know some people do so even without a law degree. There is no requirement that you hire a divorce lawyer in New Jersey. And even if you do there are no guaranteed results. But I know that like many things, unless you do this work you do not know what you do not know. What do I mean by that?

Well, for one thing, without discovery you can never be completely sure you are aware of all the assets of your marriage. That doesn’t mean the other party is intentionally hiding anything either. For instance: this morning I realized I had $90.00 in a checking account I thought I had long ago closed. I’m usually very on top of my finances but this one slipped past me until tax return time. Now imagine the same thing but it’s a $90,000 account. Not everybody is incredibly organized and over decades of life even large assets may go missing or unaccounted for. Without divorce something may be accidentally (or intentionally) slipped past you.

But it also means this: you may not know that you’re entitled to a portion of your spouse’s pension. That means that by hiring a divorce lawyer you may get thousands of dollars extra per month in retirement that you would have otherwise not thought about. Although sometimes hiring lawyers can seem to “complicate things,” the thoroughness of a “divorce audit” and being fully informed of your rights and responsibilities can lead to more money in your pocket.

And here’s another thing: if you retain a lawyer to draft your Marital Settlement Agreement then it will hopefully be clearly written and will contain all of the important terms needed to live out your post-marriage life. This could lead to less chance of litigation or issues in the future (post-divorce) that may need to be re-litigated. There is no guarantee these issues will not arise even with a lawyer (as divorce agreements can be tricky given that they must hold up for years or even decades), but the training and experience should minimize such issues.

Also, if one side has an attorney and the other doesn’t (or neither side has an attorney) it’s not only possible that you’ll misapply the law, it’s also likely that one of you will feel like you got taken advantage of. This may lead to an additional emotional cost for one or both parties in the years to come. Going through the divorce process can sometimes be painful (or even downright ugly), but sometimes it is necessary to move forward.

So, I guess it’s not surprising that I—a divorce lawyer–believe that divorce/family law lawyers are important. I am admittedly biased. But I have also seen too many bad agreements brought about by those operating without counsel.

I also know many people are struggling financially and that they don’t want to spend money on a lawyer. That’s definitely a societal problem and there may be services such as Legal Services available for those that are truly at or below the poverty line. For everyone else you may need to call around to find a lawyer that you can work with financially. It’s in a sense an investment you’ll need to consider or risk losing more money in the long run. If you spend $10,000 to receive an extra $100,000 in a divorce, for instance, was your lawyer really “a waste of money?”

And one more thing—-the procedural requirements of a New Jersey Divorce can be quite vigorous and time-consuming. Hiring a lawyer will help take some of this off your shoulders and provide you with extra time to focus on other important elements of your life. Court Rules are generally not relaxed just because someone does not have a lawyer.

If you’d like to see if our firm may be the right fit for your divorce and/or family law needs, then call us today at 908-237-3096 or use our website to self-schedule a divorce consult.

Helping Police Officers Through Their New Jersey Divorce

What to do When a Brother or Sister in Blue Is Going Through a Divorce and How to Limit its Potential Impact on Your Department.

*An Article for Police Chiefs and Other High-Ranking Officers to Assist Their Team Members When They Are Facing a Divorce by Attorney Carl Taylor, Esq.

Over the years I have represented many local law enforcement officers of all ranks in their New Jersey divorces. At times I have represented spouses of law enforcement in divorces as well. My experience as a municipal prosecutor has demonstrated to me, although in an admittedly limited way, how stressful a law enforcement job can be. The hardworking men and women I work with often work long hours including nights, are almost always “on call,” deal with a great deal of stressful situations, and are often not compensated or sufficiently thanked for their work and the dangers they face in performing such work.

Perhaps it only makes sense then that law enforcement divorce rates are among the highest of any profession, with some statistics showing a nearly 75% divorce rate for law enforcement officers.  Not only that, but New Jersey Law Enforcement divorces can prove to be difficult matters from a legal perspective. Almost invariably the first question my law enforcement clients ask is whether or not their spouse will be entitled to a share of their pension.

Because of the long hours they work and lack of a set schedule, law enforcement officers often have difficulty obtaining primary custody of their children.  Even if your marriage is blissful, as a police chief or high-ranking officer you will often deal with these issues indirectly as a manager of people.  When things are not going well in a person’s home, they have a tendency to impact them in the office.  This is true whether you are a doctor, a police officer, or an office employee.  As a leader, you will need to be there for your officers during good and bad times while ensuring public safety and that departmental rules and AG guidelines are met. 

The sporadic nature of law enforcement overtime makes it difficult to calculate child support and alimony for those facing a divorce, and on top of that, law enforcement officers are more likely to have stay-at-home spouses than the general population–which can be a real luxury during an intact marriage but a nightmare in a divorce when alimony and custody are being sought by a soon to be former spouse.

Moreover, the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (“PFRS”) law enforcement pension has certain unique traits such as a general lack of survivor benefits that make negotiating a division of pension and life insurance a sometimes complex mathematical exercise. 

Regarding law enforcement alimony, the issue becomes only more complex given the recent changes to the federal tax code whereby effective January 1, 2019 all future alimony will no longer be taxable to the receiver or tax deductible to the payer.  In a majority of instances the law enforcement officer will be paying alimony and a new calculation will have to be determined moving forward to tax-affect this change in the federal tax law.

Tips for Law Enforcement Divorce

Although an initial consultation with this firm or another will be invaluable for determining a law enforcement officer’s rights and responsibilities when confronting a divorce, here are some of my best general tips for any law enforcement officers considering a divorce:  

  • Ok, so technically this is not a tip for those already married, but for those law enforcement officers that are engaged or in a serious relationship, consider obtaining a valid prenuptial agreement before the marriage. Although you won’t be able to negotiate away custody and child support issues, you can address issues of alimony and equitable distribution (such as having your wife waive his or her interest in your pension) provided that the agreement is valid.  As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
  • If a marriage is adrift be particularly sensitive if you or someone you know is nearing the twenty year anniversary, as that is when “open durational alimony” kicks in, which is essentially a fancier term for permanent alimony.
  • Attempt to limit the “locker room” talk from officers to those facing a divorce.  This now only helps from a managerial standpoint but can avoid the hive-mind that can sometimes lead to emotional decisions by those facing a divorce.  Many of my law enforcement officers receive well-meaning but incorrect advice from fellow officers.  This is, in practicality about one step above the advice those in jail receive from fellow “jailhouse lawyers.”  Every divorce is different based upon its own specific facts. Although law enforcement divorces have certain similarities, there are still many specific factors. And to that end…
  • If you give any advice to your team, perhaps attempt to imprint to them that they must realize they will not be as in control as they normally are. Divorce can be a messy ride even with experienced counsel. Law Enforcement officers are used to working within the more clear-cut criminal code and being mostly in control of the legal situation. Family law courts are nebulous and unclear terms such as “best interests of the child” permeate. Divorce should be viewed as dispassionately as possible from a good business mindset.  Insurance companies do not get emotional when they review personal injury lawsuits but perform sophisticated cost-benefit analysis.  All too often this is not how divorces are handled.  By keeping emotions in check during the divorce process law enforcement officers can work to protect their relationships with their children, protect their assets, and limit their exposure. 
  • Note that fault is not that important in New Jersey law enforcement divorces. Again, as far back as the academy you learned to look for mens rea –intent–in your criminal and traffic law matters. However, even if one’s spouse is 100% at fault in a divorce, it generally does not matter for purposes of calculating alimony or awarding alimony or child support. Much of the success of a divorce comes down to mindset. Just as one would train at the gun range one must train their mind to be prepared for the brick-by-brick process of obtaining a fair divorce that will not negatively harm their children.
  • Generally I advise clients to not leave the marital home during the pendency of a divorce. For law enforcement officers up to Chiefs this advice is more nuanced. As you know all too well from your experience with the public, a false domestic violence charge can take away your gun and maybe your career. While one may believe their spouse would not file such charges (knowing you are likely the “golden goose” I’ve seen it happen as all too often emotions rule in a divorce.  Good advice in such circumstances is to document everything, try to not engage in any kind of verbal confrontation, and to let the spouse take the house and limit all interaction if it is believed they are capable of filing a false domestic violence charge. 

There are many other issues that a law enforcement officer confronting a divorce will need to address, but the above are some of my best quick tips to help get through an admittedly difficult situation.   

Carl Taylor Law, LLC  

If you or someone you know is considering a New Jersey divorce or Family Law action contact attorney Carl Taylor, Esq., to discuss your options.  You can schedule an initial consultation by calling the Central New Jersey office at 908-237-3096. 

Is There Legal Separation in New Jersey?

One of the questions I am asked quite often in my divorce practice is whether or not there is legal separation in New Jersey. Generally, the answer is “no,” but I wanted to address the issue in more depth in this blog post.

Defining Legal Separation and Why Would People Want Legal Separation Anyway?

First, I think the term “legal separation” itself needs to be defined. When my clients or prospective clients ask me about “legal separation,” I believe they are usually asking if there is a way to live separate and apart, with a legal agreement, without actually formalizing the divorce.

There may be a number of reasons why someone would want to be legally separated. Sometimes a marriage has failed but people do not wish to formalize the divorce because they have religious or moral objectives to finalizing a divorce. They see legal separation as a way to live separate and apart but also honor their vowels and religious obligations. This is particularly true because in some religions annulments or other forms of acceptable “religious divorce” may be difficult and/or costly to obtain. Others may pursue legal separation because they may wish to reconcile in the future but wish to live separate and apart for a while with specific parameters in place.

Others are more practical: perhaps they wish to remain on the other parties medical insurance but know that once a divorce is finalized in New Jersey their medical benefits would end. There are plenty of other more pragmatic reasons for seeking legal separation.

Unfortunately, whatever the reasons, New Jersey does not have a specific “legal separation” mechanism.* (see footnote at bottom of blog post).

However, there are a few steps one could take if attempting to simulate “legal separation.” In many instances a divorce may still prove the better option and you will need to weigh and discuss these issues with your lawyer as they are fact-sensitive.

Divorce from Bed & Board

Firstly, New Jersey does recognize “Divorce from Bed & Board.” In a Divorce from Bed & Board the parties cannot remarry but can generally convert the divorce into a final divorce at any time. They are considered legally divorced in most ways but may be able to remain on each other’s medical insurance. This may be a particularly useful tool for those who are older and considering a divorce. However, it is not specifically “legal separation” because the parties are still essentially divorced. Moreover, the negotiation, procedural process, cost and expense of finalizing a Divorce from Bed and Board is essentially the same as that for a divorce. In my experience less than 5% of all divorces contain counts of Divorce from Bed & Board.

Pendente Lite Support

When clients or prospective clients ask me about legal separation I believe they often think there may be a method to draw up an agreement that would not finalize the divorce but that would provide an outline of rights and responsibilities each would have to the other and for their children. However, as noted above there is no docket in New Jersey for legal separation. You could work out an agreement for Pendente Lite relief, but this would be during the pendency of the divorce. You would still have to file for divorce and obtain a divorce docket number and the court would still be involved in the process.

I often tell clients that there are two main components of a divorce in New Jersey: (1) The final terms (i.e. the Divorce Agreement); and (2) the temporary terms in place while the divorce is being finalized (what is called the pendente lite portion of the divorce). Most of the pendente lite terms may be revisited at the time the divorce is finalized and are often deemed “without prejudice,” meaning subject to change. Most people focus so much on the divorce and the divorce final agreement that they ignore what they will need to do or what rights they have while the divorce is pending–something that can take from a couple of months up to a few years depending upon how contested the divorce process is.

Accordingly, pendente lite terms may be similar to a separation agreement, but is too fragile an agreement (or court order) and too short in duration to really provide a “legal separation” as desired by most clients who ask about legal separation. Indeed, it is really just a step on the path to divorce.

Post-Nuptial Agreements and Reconciliation Agreements

Another set of documents that might be similar to legal separation include “post-nuptial” agreements and “reconciliation agreements.” Similar to prenuptial agreements, these agreements intend to set forth marital and divorce terms–only this time after the marriage has been completed (unlike prenuptial agreements which must be completed prior to the marriage being finalized).

Firstly, the case law is almost consistent that post-nuptial agreements are generally found invalid. Unless both parties are willing to be bound by them they are very difficult to enforce because at that point you are already married and thus the courts find there is often duress or other such issues that may render the agreement invalid.

Reconciliation Agreements have a better track-record of enforceability because they are generally drafted following a period of separation (not legal separation but just separation in a formal sense). Accordingly, the courts find that the power dynamics are often closer to that of a prenuptial agreement than a postnuptial agreement. Still, these documents are often found to be unenforceable in whole or in part and are very difficult documents to negotiate and enforce. They are also both contemplated during a period of togetherness or contemplating togetherness between the couple, and therefore are inapposite to what would be desired in a “legal separation.”

Civil Restraints

Another agreement that may be actionable is an entry into “civil restraints.” However, this agreement is generally only binding for a set period of time (with the possible exception of no-contact provisions). Moreover, it is the result of a domestic violence action. More specifically, the parties may agree to “enter into civil restraints” as part of agreeing to dismiss a temporary restraining order. There is law that states domestic violence matters cannot really be negotiated so it would generally be given a divorce or other docket number. However, for the reasons outlined above it would not constitute “legal separation.”

Conclusion

The real problem with an informal “legal separation” is that it would not be binding should the parties ever stop agreeing to its terms. Even if both of you put something in writing without attorneys it would likely not be a binding agreement (depending upon the specific terms and circumstances of the case).

Moreover, being separated may not toll debt incurred by your spouse, may increase your alimony obligation as the years go by, and may create a new status quo that could impact your custody, your finances, and your parenting time.

It is best to speak with a lawyer if you are contemplating separation. Our firm offers consults to help you learn how separation and/or divorce may impact the important elements of your life. Call 908-237-3096 today to schedule a consult with our office.

*As an interesting aside, it also generally does not have common law marriage (although palimony claims may still be actionable and there is common law marriage for those who would have been considered “common law married” effective in 1939 when common law marriage was abolished prospectively).

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