From what you should ask when choosing a divorce lawyer to when you should consider litigation, there are many questions divorcing couples find themselves asking during the divorce process. Sonya K. Zeigler, a Toms River family lawyer, answers the most frequently asked questions that come up during the divorce process in New Jersey.
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Hosted by: Diana Shepherd, Editorial Director, Divorce Magazine
Guest speaker: Sonya K. Zeigler, Family Lawyer
Specializing in financially complex divorces – including those involving property division, business valuation, and cash-flow determination and spousal support – Sonya K. Zeigler has the skills and experience to handle even the most difficult cases. With a Master of Laws in taxation, she has the ability to protect her clients’ financial futures.
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Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below.
Sonya Zeigler on Frequently Asked Divorce Questions
Diana Shepherd: What questions should somebody ask when choosing a divorce lawyer?
Sonya Zeigler: Two important questions that an individual should ask during a consultation with a prospective divorce attorney are:
- how long have they been practicing solely in the field of divorce, and
- what types of cases do they typically handle?
Many divorce lawyers develop a specialization in a particular type of case, and if your case does not have the facts that would be consistent with that specialization, it certainly would not be in your best interests to be represented by someone with that skill set.
I always tell people that when they meet with a prospective divorce attorney, they should evaluate whether or not they feel comfortable with that attorney, and if they feel that they can communicate with the attorney in such a way that they both understand each other completely. Going through the divorce process is one of the most difficult things that most people will ever do. Having someone who is incredibly skilled at divorce law to negotiate the best deal possible is important, but just as important is that when they explain to you how to make decisions that are going to affect the rest of your life, you trust them, you’re comfortable with them, and you feel that they have your best interests at heart.
From your years of experience as a family lawyer, what is your best advice for somebody who is contemplating divorce in New Jersey?
My best advice for anybody contemplating divorce is to hire an attorney specializing in the area of your divorce that you believe will be the most problematic. I would never recommend that someone hire a general practitioner who does some real-estate work, some commercial-litigation work, and some matrimonial-litigation work, because they are not a specialist in matrimonial matters. I would certainly advise the potential client to find a lawyer with skills in exactly the areas that they need. For purposes of comparison, if you needed to select a doctor, you would not want a general practitioner for something as specialized as a knee surgery; instead, you’d choose an orthopedic specialist – and preferably one who specialized in knee surgery. The same holds true for attorneys: we specialize for a reason, and that decision to specialize allows us to be better at what we do, to be more knowledgeable in our chosen specialty, and to obtain more favorable results than those that might be obtained by just a general practitioner.
How can somebody shorten the divorce process? I’m not talking about cutting corners or hiding something, but ways to keep the time expenditure to a minimum and still achieve an equitable result.
The easiest way to shorten the divorce process would be to fully cooperate with your own attorney to provide information when it’s requested, and to cooperate with the other side if anything has to be done by the two attorneys together. Be an active participant in the process, and be willing to make the time in your busy schedule to find documents, to go to the bank, to have an appraisal done on the home, etc. Take care of the things that we as attorneys really can’t do for you, so we don’t have to sit and wait until that information is supplied to us; that way, we can then move forward with your case.
Is it possible to change any details of the agreement, such as child support or alimony, parenting time, etc., once a divorce has been finalized?
Parenting time, alimony, and child support are some of the items that are always potentially subject to modification subsequent to a divorce in New Jersey. There are certain legal standards that need to be satisfied before a court would modify; however, those would be the general categories that could be subject to modification post-judgment.
When should a divorcing couple consider litigation, and what makes a case ideal for litigation?
I’m not sure there would ever be a scenario where a case would be ideal for litigations. Sadly, however, there are sometimes cases that are necessary to be litigated. In every case that I work on, I try my best to craft a remedy and resolution that limits the amount of involvement the Court has in its outcome. Approximately only 1% of cases in the State of New Jersey ever go to trial in family court. This is because most people are wise enough to realize that it is better for them to control decisions concerning their children, their assets, and their income than to hire a stranger who is sitting on the bench making those decisions on their behalf.
So, you’re saying that even if they choose litigation it doesn’t always mean court – that they could settle out of court?
I interpret the term “litigation” to mean divorcing individuals who are actually in court before a judge, fighting over issues. The way most cases play out, though, is that attorneys get involved, we exchange documents, we have meetings, and we have sessions with the forensic experts where we identify what we need to come up with values and cash-flow numbers for the earning spouse – or for both spouses if both are earning income. At that point, we then sit down outside the courtroom and attempt to negotiate a deal. From the perspective of a matrimonial attorney, litigation would solely mean fighting it out in court and forcing a judge to make a decision on one or all of the issues in your case. Since only about 1% of cases in family court in New Jersey ever go to trial, in the vast majority of situations, the divorce process does not mean that the individuals will ever have a decision made by a judge. It really is up to them: if they can cooperate and make concessions and agreements – which may not be exactly what they want, but that are palatable enough to take – they can avoid having a judge render a decision on their behalf.
How does a divorcing couple decide whether their children should live with one parent most or all of the time, or split their time between both parents’ homes?
That’s a tough question to answer. It depends on the family dynamic, the historical responsibility of each parent, and the needs of the children themselves. If the parties are able to be somewhat amicable and really focus on those things, it will guide them to generating a schedule that is in the best interests of the children. Divorcing parents should never put their own interests ahead of those of their children. We see many cases that are similar economically and geographically, and yet the parenting schedules that work best for the children are very, very different.
Is there a difference between joint physical custody and joint legal custody in New Jersey?
Having legal custody in the State of New Jersey gives you the right to make all significant decisions on the part of the children relating to their housing, education, welfare, and religion. Legal custody is typically joint, but not always. Physical custody designates where the children reside and for what period of time. Here is where each parent would be appointed as either a parent of primary residence or a parent of alternate residence, and then craft a schedule that would indicate where the children are on what particular date or week.
Does this schedule play any part in assessing child support – either in who pays or receives it, or amounts?
The parenting schedule does play a part in assessing child support – particularly if a case is a New Jersey Child Support Guideline case. Many of my cases are not of this type, because my clients typically earn too much money to fall within the Guideline maximum amount. Nonetheless, the amount of time that each parent has the children will still affect both whether or not they will pay or receive child support, and the amount that this will need to be in order to give the parent receiving the support the resources they need for the children to maintain a comparable quality of life to what they enjoyed during the period that the family was intact.
Is there anything that a parent can do to ensure that he or she gets to spend more than just alternate weekends and one Wednesday night a week with their kids?
New Jersey happens to be a relatively progressive state to the extent that they don’t view a mom or dad as having an advantage over the other parent with regard to who should have the children more often. A family court in New Jersey would treat both parents as equally situated with respect to rights to the children. It really boils down to what each individual thinks would be in the best interests of the children, and those concerns or desires then result in the division of the days between each of them.