Arons and Solomon | September 18, 2018 | Articles
Taking a divorce case to trial is a major commitment of time, money, and stress. To help couples avoid the economic and emotional pain of a lengthy divorce, the state of New Jersey created the “Early Settlement Panel” program.
This mandatory court appearance is a good faith attempt to settle financial issues outside the courtroom. The panel takes place following the discovery process, after both parties have obtained access to all financial information necessary to make a settlement agreement.
Who Serves on an Early Settlement Panel?
The panel consists of 2-3 matrimonial lawyers who each have a minimum five years of experience in the family law profession. These volunteer panelists are completely unaffiliated with both parties seeking the divorce.
Since all panelists are local attorneys, they are familiar with the judges and typical outcomes of similar cases heard within your specific jurisdiction. In other words, they can give the best educated guess on the likely decision of a judge if the case were to go to trial.
This unbiased insight may give you a fresh perspective on the case, and ultimately save you thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees.
What Issues Are Decided in an Early Settlement Panel?
Early Settlement Panels address all financial issues surrounding the divorce case, including: alimony, child support, and division of property. It does not include custody and parenting time.
Each side submits an Early Settlement Panel Statement ahead of time, which summarizes the facts of the case and outlines the party’s conditions for settlement on each unresolved issue.
This is a big moment. For most couples seeking a divorce, it is the first time both sides clearly articulate, in writing, what it will take to part ways without a fight (excluding custody issues). These terms will serve as a starting framework for the rest of the divorce proceeding.
For this reason, you must get the Statement right. The lawyers at Arons & Solomon can help you prepare this critical paperwork.
What Happens During an Early Settlement Panel Hearing?
After reviewing the Early Settlement Panel Statements of both parties (along with their Case Information Statements and any other relevant financial documents submitted), the panelists meet with the attorneys of both parties. Sometimes the divorcing couple is in the room, and sometimes they are not.
The attorneys present their respective cases, and the panel will ask some follow-up questions. The procedure is informal. There is no official written record, testimony, or cross-examination.
After both sides present their conditions, the representing attorneys leave the room and the panel deliberates among itself. When the panelists reach a consensus, they call the attorneys back in to report their recommendations.
Do I Have to Follow the Recommendations of the Early Settlement Panel?
Absolutely not. The recommendations are confidential, but not legally binding. You have the option to:
- Fully accept the recommendations
- Partially accept the recommendations and reject specific pieces
- Fully reject the recommendations
If both parties agree to the recommendations, they can get a divorce that same day. The recommendations would be put into writing and submitted to the judge. Both parties would testify they understand the terms of the settlement and are freely and voluntarily agreeing to the terms. The judge would issue a Final Judgement of Divorce, and that would be that.
If the recommendations are deemed unacceptable by one or both parties, the judge will typically order mandatory economic mediation. It should be noted that in cases involving domestic violence, mandatory economic mediation may be waived.
In all other cases, the process would begin immediately. Both parties would have to select a mediator and pick a date for the first mediation session before leaving the courthouse. If the remaining issues cannot be settled in mediation, the case will go to trial.
What Happens if I Refuse to Participate?
If a party refuses to participate in the Early Settlement Panel hearing, they risk forfeiting their pleadings.
According to NJ Rule 5:5-5:
All vicinages shall establish an Early Settlement Program (ESP), in conjunction with the County Bar Associations, and the Presiding Judges, or designee, shall refer appropriate cases including post-judgment applications to the program based upon review of the pleadings and case information statements submitted by the parties. Parties to cases that have been so referred shall participate in the program as scheduled. The failure of a party to participate in the program or to provide a case information statement or such other required information may result in the assessment of counsel fees and/or dismissal of the non-cooperating party’s pleadings. Not later than five days prior to the scheduled panel session, each party shall be required to provide a submission to the ESP coordinator in the county of venue, with a copy to the designated panelists, if known.
There is no upside to skipping your Early Settlement Panel. It will cost you money, diminish your credibility, and ultimately hurt your case.
Hire a New Jersey Divorce Lawyer
A successful Early Settlement Panel requires both parties to fully embrace the process with the understanding that settlements are a compromise. You must go through the difficult exercise of selecting your priorities, and letting the other things go.
Arons & Solomon can help you prepare an Early Settlement Panel Statement that protects the things that matter to you the most.