When most people think of non-litigation divorce methods, they typically think of mediation or arbitration. These are voluntary, third-party processes that allow a couple to resolve their divorce without court intervention. There is, however, a divorce litigation alternative that is offered directly by the New Jersey superior courts. Referred to as the Matrimonial Early Settlement Program, or ESP, this program attempts to help couples settle the financial terms of their divorce with the assistance of an Early Settlement Panel. These panels normally consist of matrimonial law attorneys who volunteer their time to advise couples on issues such as alimony, child support and property division.
It's important to understand that unlike mediation and arbitration, the ESP is not done on a voluntary basis. After the divorce complaint is filed, a judge reviews the case with each of the party's attorneys to see if it should be referred to an ESP panel. As a general rule, the cases involve complex financial matters or disputes that may result in litigation. The program's intent is to help spouses reach a resolution without the financial and emotional costs of a divorce trial. If it is decided that the case should be referred to the panel, the judge will assign a date for you to appear with your attorney.
Being required to participate in the ESP can be frustrating for spouses, who are convinced that it's a waste of time. Many couples, after all, may have been fighting bitterly for years prior to filing the divorce complaint. They may have been speaking only through their attorneys, even on important issues regarding their children. It's no wonder that many of these couples are incredibly annoyed at having to “negotiate” with each other, when they're thoroughly convinced that it's all going to end in litigation, anyway. Even if you're a party to one of these divorces, you should still keep an open mind and take the ESP process seriously. Parents should think about how a speedy resolution can help their children move forward and begin the healing process sooner, rather than later. Even if there are no children involved, it still makes sense to settle your divorce as soon as possible, so that neither of you end up facing financial hardship.
It's no harm, at any rate, to listen to the suggestions of divorce professionals with many years of experience. The panel will make their recommendations after discussing the case with each party's attorneys. They will also have reviewed each spouse's financial records and Case Information Statements (CIS), which would have been submitted by the attorneys ahead of time. Their recommendations are non-binding, meaning that you don't have to agree or settle on anything. Prior to making any decisions, you will have a chance to discuss the recommendations with your attorney in a private room. While the ESP may not work for you, it is a valuable chance to understand your legal options, and possibly reach some level of consensus with your spouse before proceeding to litigation.