Divorce has become a much-talked about topic since families have been forced to shelter at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many who were already in the process of divorce worry about whether courts will move cases forward as we all quarantine. We asked attorney Rajeh A. Saadeh, an expert on matrimonial and family law, to share his insights as well as everything couples should know about divorce in New Jersey.
New Jersey Family: In light of COVID-19, what’s the number one question or worry you’re hearing about from couples looking to divorce?
Rajeh A. Saadeh: Most people wonder whether courts are open and whether there will be a slowdown in getting a divorce. The court system in New Jersey has made major steps to try to continue resolving matters, including and especially divorces, during the pandemic. That includes having video and telephone hearings as needed and subject to court capabilities.
NJF: How is the coronavirus pandemic changing the way divorce is being handled?
RS: Divorces are being handled in court differently. Trials are pushed back, and hearings otherwise are done telephonically or by video, subject to court capabilities. The court system is doing its best to adjust to the pandemic for the sake of everyone’s health while continuing to move cases along.
NJF: We’re hearing divorce rates are going up during COVID-19. Are you personally getting more inquiries?
RS: Divorce rates are pretty consistent no matter the market conditions, time of year, or what is going on around the world, including during the pandemic. People will always get married, have children, and get divorced. Despite what Benjamin Franklin believed, death and taxes are not life’s only certainties.
NJF: Proceeding with divorce must be hard when both parties are under the same roof and speaking confidentiality with an attorney becomes a challenge. What are some of the challenges you are seeing or think you will see during this period?
RS: Thankfully, the weather is tolerable, so people can take a walk and have a conversation with counsel without the other spouse knowing. Also, a lot of inquiries and discussions tend to be had by email in light of the pandemic. The issues that do come up in a divorce that are affected by the pandemic are domestic violence due to unhappy people being stuck under the same roof without an outlet, financial support questions in light of job loss or reduction, and dealing with custody issues when parents can’t agree on how to care for children while they are out of school and the parents are not working or working from home.
NJF: Let’s cover some of the basics starting with what is the process for getting a divorce?
RS: A divorce in New Jersey is a lawsuit. One spouse files a lawsuit against the other spouse requesting a divorce. The other spouse is served with the divorce papers that were filed and has to answer, or respond, to the divorce case. The court schedules what is called discovery, which is a process for both spouses to request information and documents from the other and respond to those requests. After everyone has responded to discovery, everyone should be operating under the same set of facts and assumptions, and the court schedules settlement mechanisms to help parties try to settle the case. If those settlement mechanisms are unsuccessful, a trial is scheduled, and both parties put on their cases in front of a judge who then decides the issues and grants a divorce.
Of course, spouses are welcome and encouraged to reach an agreement on how to resolve their issues between them and settle the case. If they can do that, they will get divorced sooner and save themselves time, money, stress, and uncertainty.
In the middle of a divorce, if something more imminent needs to be addressed that can’t wait, like when, where, how long, and how often the children are going to see each parent, or when a spouse needs financial support, a motion may be filed for a judge to make that decision. That way, even in the middle of a divorce, both parents can see and spend time with children, and a spouse with financial need can obtain support.
NJF: How long does a divorce usually take? Will COVID-19 impact this timeline?
RS: A divorce in New Jersey is supposed to take no longer than one year. Most divorces get done much more quickly because most divorcing parties reach an agreement on how to resolve their issues and settle their cases. But, in some counties, there is a large backlog of old and unresolved cases, which means unresolved cases take longer than they are supposed to before getting in front of a judge to decide the outstanding issues.
NJF: What if I have financial or child custody issues that need to be resolved before my divorce case ends? How are COVID-19 stay-at-home orders impacting child custody arrangements?
RS: A motion can always be filed to address financial or child custody issues before a divorce case ends. The pandemic is affecting custody arrangements because some parents are not letting children spend time with other parents who live elsewhere even when a court order or agreement says otherwise, even after a divorce. A motion can be filed to have the court address violations of court orders, including respecting child custody and visitation, and the reasons for the violation, and the pandemic is causing parents to have to decide between not complying with the custody arrangement and putting themselves, children, and others at risk of exposure. These issues are decided on a case-by-case basis depending on all facts and circumstances.
NJF: What is decided by a family court judge in a divorce case?
RS: Generally, first and foremost, the judge decides whether there are grounds for divorce and, if so, what they are. Without grounds, the judge cannot grant a divorce.
The judge also decides alimony, which is spousal support, and how to divide marital property and debt. As for children, the judge decides custody and visitation as well as child support. Finally, the court decides whether to award a spouse attorney fees to be paid by the other and, if so, how much.
NJF: What happens to insurance, including healthcare, medical, dental, and vision, during a divorce? How will COVID-19 impact all of this?
RS: During a divorce, insurance is supposed to be maintained as it existed before the divorce started. That is to maintain what is called the status quo for the sake of continuity and ensuring that everyone knows what to expect insurance-wise even when their family situation is in limbo. The pandemic can disrupt that because people can lose jobs, which means they can lose their employer-provided healthcare insurance. And, with the loss of income, they may not be able to continue paying for the insurances they did prior to the divorce.
NJF: How is alimony calculated and how will that change during this pandemic?
RS: The amount and duration of alimony is determined based on a number of factors, including the marital standard of living, the ability of each party to earn an income and, if so, how much, how old are each of the parties, the health situation of each party, and child care responsibilities. Alimony is not formulaic and cannot just be plugged into a calculator to determine how much and for how long alimony is to be paid.
NJF: What assets and debts are divided in a divorce, and how are they divided? What if assets and income take a substantial dip during COVID-19?
RS: Marital assets and debts are divided in a divorce. Non-marital assets and debts are not. Generally, non-marital assets include those that are inherited or gifted from someone outside of the marriage, like a parent or friend or relative. Premarital assets are also non-marital. But, if marital money was mixed into a non-marital asset, like if marital earnings were used to pay down a mortgage on a premarital home, then the non-marital asset becomes marital and can be divided.
Marital assets and debts are generally divided equally, but they do not have to be. A number of facts and circumstances can alter how all or some marital assets and debts are divided.
NJF: How is child support calculated and how will that change during this pandemic?
RS: Generally, child support is calculated based on a calculator called the child support guidelines. Into that calculator, when you insert both parents’ incomes, alimony paid and received, the parenting time and visitation schedule, and the healthcare insurance cost for the children, the calculator will say how much child support is to be paid for the children.
NJF: How do I find and pay for a divorce lawyer?
RS: The easiest and best way to find the best divorce lawyer is using the internet to find someone who is highly reviewed. Good divorce lawyers do not have to be expensive, but they are not cheap, and they should take a number of different payment options, including cash, check, and card. If you do not have sufficient funds to pay for a divorce lawyer, you might want to consider using credit cards, borrowing from friends and family, or taking out a loan. A divorce is an investment in your future, and you do not want to skimp on a few thousand dollars because it can cost you much, much more later on.
Rajeh A. Saadeh devotes a substantial portion of his practice to matrimonial and family law and handles all issues pertaining to divorce, including child custody, visitation, parenting time, child support, division of assets and debts, valuation of businesses and professional practices, stock options, executive benefits and compensation, alimony, palimony, arbitration, and mediation. He also handles domestic violence litigation, post-divorce modification and enforcement and drafting of prenuptial, mid-marriage, and divorce settlement agreements. In connection with his family law background, Rajeh serves as an appointee to the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s Family Practice Committee, volunteers on the Early Settlement Panel, and is a trained family law mediator. He is also a leader of lawyers in bar associations, interviews applicants for admission to the University of Pennsylvania, is an adjunct professor at Raritan Valley Community College, has spoken on or moderated numerous panels on family law, has published law-related articles, and has been quoted and appeared in the media on the law.
Prior to private practice, Rajeh served as the Judicial Law Clerk to the Honorable Hany A. Mawla, who was the Presiding Judge of the Family Part in Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties and now sits in the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. Rajeh graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School where he was elected Class Officer by his peers and received the Outstanding Pro Bono Service Award for his work with the Homeless Advocacy Project. At Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts, Rajeh was an Edward J. Bloustein Distinguished Scholar, a member of the Rutgers College Honors Program, and a frequenter on the Dean’s List. Rajeh is licensed to practice law in the States of New Jersey and New York and authorized to appear before the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Rajeh A. Saadeh
The Law Office of Rajeh A. Saadeh, L.L.C.
50 Division Street
Somerville, N.J. 08876