What is the early settlement program?
All New Jersey counties have established Early Settlement Programs which are court-mandated programs required for all people with pending divorce litigation. Some counties have started requiring attendance at early settlement panels for post-judgment issues as well.
The panelists are attorneys with substantial matrimonial experience who are selected by the Family Law Committee and/or judges. They have agreed to volunteer to help you reach a fair settlement of your case. Two panelists will hear your case in a private room. It is the practice to have the parties present during the presentation. Each attorney will present the facts of the case informally to the panel. It is not a trial. There is no formal testimony taken, or cross examination, or a record made of what is said.
What issues do the panelists consider?
The purpose of the panel is to consider the financial issues such as alimony, child support, property division and counsel fees. The panel may also, if requested, consider other issues. However, they do not consider custody issues.
The panel will use the financial information presented to it by the attorneys, including the case information statements, tax returns, appraisals, pay stubs, etc. The panel will then rely on the information presented to it and will apply existing New Jersey matrimonial law to those facts in order to arrive at a recommendation for settlement of your case.
What is the purpose of the recommendation?
The panel will make a recommendation as to what they think is a fair settlement of the case, based on what they believe the judge would decide if it went to trial. This is only a recommendation and you do not have to accept it. However, it is the opinion of two experienced matrimonial attorneys and their recommendation should be carefully considered and discussed with your attorney. Even if you do not accept the recommendation, you can use it as a basis for further settlement discussions. However, the recommendation is strictly confidential, the panel will not report to the court. It is intended that the judge will not know what the recommendation was unless the attorneys for the parties, by mutual consent, choose to inform the judge so that either party may use the recommendation for further bargaining.
What are the benefits of settling?
If you settle at the time of paneling or negotiating benefit the judge can be informed of your settlement and the case can end that day including the granting of divorce. Obviously, settling saves time, expense, counsel fees, and further emotional distress for the parties and the family. If you choose not to settle that day, your case will be rescheduled for another court date. You should be aware that most matrimonial cases are settled between the parties and are not tried by the courts and that experience has shown that most parties are much happier with an agreement that they have negotiated themselves than with a result which is ordered by the court.