New Jersey offers an “Early Settlement Program (ESP)” as an alternative to a traditional trial for divorcing couples. ESP is a mediation program. Through the program, the couple will work out an out-of-court settlement agreement instead of taking their divorce to trial. The aim of ESP is to allow couples a quicker, easier and less costly way to resolve their divorce.
What is ESP?
Under Court Rule 5.5-5, the judge has the authority to refer a case to ESP. If referred, both spouses must participate in the program. It is up to each spouse to submit the necessary forms to the ESP coordinator and panelists five days or more before their hearing. The panelists are volunteer family law attorneys.
Both spouses will present their side of the case to the panelists who will also review any supporting documents. Each spouse must prepare and submit an ESP memo that outlines their position on divorce legal issues such as the division of assets and debts, spousal support and child support. It is important to note that the ESP panel will not handle issues regarding child custody and visitation.
The result of the ESP hearing
After hearing both sides and reviewing forms and documents submitted, the ESP panel will recommend a settlement based on fairness and how they believe a judge would have ruled if the divorce went to trial. However, this decision is not binding. Spouses can still go to trial if they want, and the panel’s recommendation will not be made known to the judge. If spouses to agree with the panel’s recommendation, the agreement will go before a judge, and the spouses will state under oath they agree to it. Generally, if the spouses agree with the panel’s findings, their divorce will be finalized that day. Ultimately, an ESP hearing can be a viable way to settle your divorce out-of-court in a manner that is less stressful and less costly than a trial.