EDISON – While the U.S. Census recently reported that New Jersey has the lowest rate of divorce in the nation, experts say one reason is that the cost of a divorce in the Garden State is so relatively high. And for low-income people, as well as many other New Jerseyans caught in broken marriages or failed civil unions that are beyond repair, the cost of a divorce is an especially daunting barrier.
Now, Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) has published a brand new version of its popular manual, “Divorce in New Jersey: A Self-Help Guide,” that instructs people – step by step – on how to do their own divorce, especially if the issues are not complicated.
The easy-to-read primer is designed as an inexpensive way out for many estranged couples whose failed marriages or civil unions are trapped in limbo because of the cost of divorce.
In that regard, there are many like Dennis Rossani, a poverty-stricken former Cherry Hills resident who recalls he felt like he was hitting a brick wall when he learned first-hand how much money it takes for a divorce in a high cost-of-living state like New Jersey. “I tried to get a lawyer but they charge too much money and I just can’t afford it.”
Today, with the divorce manual in hand and some advice from Legal Services along the way, he’s moving forward, but admittedly still has lots of anxiety and wishes he could afford an attorney.
“Even under the best of circumstances, the dissolution of a marriage or civil union is a difficult, draining process,” says LSNJ president Melville D. Miller, Jr. “ For low- and middle-income New Jerseyans unable to retain a lawyer, the process is so overwhelming that many may opt instead to remain in unhappy, unhealthy, or unsafe relationships. Unfortunately, recent Legal Services funding cuts have reduced the number of people we can represent. It is our hope that this guide we are making available will help many married and civil union couples escape the dangers in such failed relationships.”
The publication is free for qualified low-income people eligible for Legal Services assistance. All others can secure the print edition of the 275-page manual for $50; the digital edition is $25. Detailed information for ordering online, by mail or by phone is available at www.lsnj.org/orderpubs. Print editions can be ordered by calling 1-888-529-8338. Low-income individuals who believe they qualify for a free copy should call Legal Services’ toll-free, statewide legal hotline at 1-888-576-5529.
Miller and others caution that having a lawyer on board, if possible, is the best and safest way to go. The self-help manual lists many of the circumstances often involved in divorces – such as alimony, child support, custody and other potentially thorny and complicated issues – that are best handled by an attorney.
Actually, even those who have private attorneys handling their divorces likely will find they can save time and reduce attorney costs by utilizing the divorce manual for some of the paperwork and other requirements. That’s an important consideration, says Deborah Fennelly, LSNJ senior attorney and the primary author of the guide.
“The manual certainly can be useful even for people who retain a lawyer,” she notes, “because it better prepares them for what’s ahead and can actually cut down on costs by streamlining the process and saving time for them and their lawyer.”
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that affordability issues are a major downer for many divorcing New Jerseyans.
In the past few decades, the number of people acting as their own lawyers in divorce matters – in legal jargon it’s called going “pro se” – has increased as people try to avoid the expense of getting a divorce with an attorney. Generally, attorney retainers for divorce run about $5,000 or so, and the hourly charges can range from $200 on up, sometimes way up. That’s especially true of places like New Jersey and other high cost-of-living states in the northeast, which the Census reported have the lowest divorce rates in the nation. For New Jersey, the rate was 6.1 per 1,000 men and 6.0 for 1,000 women.
Rossani, the former Cherry Hill resident, and Yashi Bhatt, another low-income person dealing with a broken marriage, are among those trying their best to move through the divorce process largely on their own but with some help from Legal Services of New Jersey.
For Bhatt, turning to Legal Services and the use of its divorce manual essentially was a no-brainer. As she puts it, “I knew I was not able to afford the fees of a lawyer.”
Now the former Parlin resident is well on her way to ending her two-year marriage. “I just keep going to the manual all the time. It gives all kinds of information. It’s pretty explanatory.”
Susan K. Perger, director of publications and web operations for LSNJ, says the manual essentially amounts to a detailed how-to course on divorce, from the very outset of the process to the final decree. And, she points out, the guide has 145 pages of various forms that people will need to file, and also includes a glossary of terms designed to help individuals not familiar with legal terminology better understand what’s going on. Further, the introduction even provides step-by-step instructions on how to use the manual.
The main text of the divorce guide comprises six chapters, covering the divorce process in sequential order: Preparing and Filing the Divorce Complaint; Serving the Divorce Complaint; After Serving the Divorce Complaint; Getting a Default Judgment; Going to Court When the Defendant is Not in Default; and Issues After Final Judgment.
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