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        Table of Contents - Introduction - Health Issues - Family Issues
       
Financial Security - Immigration - Violence Against Women
       
Discrimination & Employment Issues - Basic Needs - Appendix

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Pre-requisites
     To get a New Jersey marriage license, a couple must be unmarried, of opposite sexes, at least 18 years old (16 years old with parental consent), and not closely related (such as siblings or first cousins). Under a new law, you no longer need to test free of sexually transmissible diseases to get a marriage license. Only certain persons such as a clergy, judge or mayor may perform the ceremony. Two witnesses must also sign the marriage certificate.

What to Do
     Apply for a marriage license at your municipal town hall. If you live out-of-state, go to the hall where your fiancé lives. If you both live out-of-state, go to the town where the marriage will take place.

  • You and your spouse must both apply and must bring a witness who is at least 18 years old and has known both of you at least six months. Bring the same witness if you and your fiancé apply at different times.
  • Show any divorce judgment(s) for you or your fiancé.
  • The application may be made up to a year in advance but the license is valid for only 30 days.
  • Complete the application on time: you must then wait at least 72 hours before getting married.

Pre-Marriage (prenuptial) Agreements
     Before marriage, you and your fiancé may choose to enter into a written agreement about how financial matters will be handled during the marriage or how to distribute or divide property in case of death or divorce. Unless the terms are unconscionable, these agreements are valid and enforceable if there was full financial disclosure by both parties.

Legal Rights and Duties of Married Couples
     Courts recognize that married people need to have their confidential communications protected. They can only testify in court about a private communication with the other spouse if both consent and if it concerns some issue in a case between them or relates to some criminal charge involving an offense by one against the other or against a child of either of them. This applies to communications during the marriage, even after the couple is divorced.
     Both spouses are legally obligated for the necessary expenses incurred by either of them during the marriage. This assures payment to creditors who provide such necessities as food, clothing, shelter (rent) and medical services out of the assets of either spouse. However, such payment must first be sought from the spouse who incurred the debt.
     If a couple owned real estate as husband and wife when one spouse dies, ownership automatically goes to the other spouse at death. You can also own property in such a way that it becomes part of your estate when you die instead of automatically becoming the property of your husband.

Annulment
     An annulment is a court declaration that a marriage never existed. Facts or circumstances that occurred before the marriage make the marriage itself invalid. Such grounds include:

  • Bigamy. One party already had a spouse at the time of the marriage, such as when a previous "divorce" was invalid (often true of divorces from certain foreign countries obtained without establishing residence there).
  • The parties were close relatives.
  • Impotence – unknown to the other party.
  • Either party lacked the capacity to understand what they were doing because of mental condition, alcohol, or drugs.

 

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Parent-Child Rights, Duties, and Responsibilities
     Children under 18 lack many rights that belong to adults. Legally, for example, even their earnings from an after-school job belong to their parents and not to them. Parents have broad discretion in deciding how to raise their children. They can be held legally responsible if their failure to control and supervise their children harms another person. From the time a child is born, the mother and father are equally responsible for supporting and caring for the child.

Foster Care Placement
     A parent’s constitutional right to control and maintain custody of her child may be affected or permanently ended by court procedures. If a child is believed to be at risk of being abused or neglected, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) may seek voluntary permission from the parents to place the child away from the parent, even before there is any court finding that abuse or neglect actually occurred. If the parent refuses or later revokes the voluntary placement agreement, DYFS may apply for a court order, or in an emergency, may take the child away without the parent’s consent, seeking a court order by the next day. With the voluntary consent of the parents, DYFS must still file a court notice within five days explaining the circumstances. The court must act within 15 days to approve the placement. The parents have a right to ask to be heard.
     If a voluntary or court-ordered placement is made, a Child Placement Review Board (CPRB) of private volunteers reviews the case within 45 days. Within the next ten days, the CPRB recommends to the judge whether to continue placement or return the child to the parents. DYFS tries to find ways to make it possible for the child to return to the parents. The placement must be made with a relative when this can be done safely.
     Throughout foster care placement, the parents have the right to visit the child (free transportation must be provided if needed), to get progress reports on the child’s status, to get help in correcting problems that led to the placement, and to get notice of all court or CPRB reviews.
NJ Fostercare

Termination of Parental Rights
     DYFS may seek to end the right of parents through a Guardianship Petition when 1) the parent is convicted of abuse, cruelty, abandonment, or neglect; 2) the child’s best interests so require; 3) there is parental abandonment, such as unjustifiable failure of the parents to contact the child, DYFS or the foster parents for six months after placement; 4) foster care placement has continued for at least
a year (if DYFS demonstrates that it made diligent efforts to help the family to remedy the conditions that caused the placement); or 5) the parent has been convicted of murder, manslaughter, or aggravated assault of another child of the parents.
     The court will hold a hearing and a lawyer will be assigned to represent the child. If the parents are indigent, another lawyer will be assigned to represent each parent.
     If the court terminates parental rights, the parents have no more rights or responsibilities toward the children.

Adoption
     An adoption is a new parent-child relationship created through the courts. The parental rights of the natural parents must first be terminated before any adoption can take place. A new statute facilitates adoptions by preventing an unmarried man, who says he is the father, from objecting to an adoption unless he stepped forward to assert his paternity in a timely manner. To terminate his rights, it is now unnecessary to prove that he is an unfit parent. It is enough to show that the termination of his parental rights is in the child’s best interests.
     To adopt a child, you must be at least 18 and, ordinarily, at least ten years older than the child. You and your husband must both consent to the adoption if you are married and living together. A recent court decision in New Jersey recognizes the right of a gay couple to adopt a child.

Placing Your Child for Adoption

What to Do
     If you are considering placing your child for adoption, discuss your plans first with someone you trust. You would need to surrender your parental rights, so if you might regret the decision later, especially if your circumstances might change, consider other alternatives first. You might first seek a relative or friend who will help you raise the child so as to permit your parental relationship to continue. In most adoptions, you have no right to contact the child after adoption. While some agencies say they will try to arrange an "open adoption" by which you stay in contact, New Jersey law does not provide for open adoptions. Courts have been concerned about the enforceability of agreements that outline subsequent contacts.
     Besides DYFS and adoption agencies, there are many reputable support organizations, religious and secular, that offer counseling and other support for mothers who intend to place a child for adoption. These will assume many or even all of the costs involved. For example, when you are pregnant with the child, some organizations will provide you with shelter, food, and all costs of prenatal and obstetrical care, as well as arranging the adoption itself.

Resource

  • Consult DYFS at (800)792-8610, NJ Adopt, an approved adoption agency that you know to be reputable, or get information from your clergy or a woman’s support group.

 

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     In more than 60 percent of New Jersey families with children, both parents are employed. Since women usually assume the principal responsibility for attending to most of the daily needs of children, finding affordable, quality child care often determines their ability to take advantage of educational or employment opportunities.

The Law
      New Jersey has adopted legislation which establishes basic ground rules for licensing institutions, organizations, and private persons in the business of providing child care. These include public and private child care centers serving six or more children. In addition, family day care providers (home-based operations serving five children or less) voluntarily register with the state which involves an inspection of their homes and access to training.
     The Family Leave Act requires that businesses with 50 or more employees allow unpaid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or the care of a seriously ill family member.

Financial Assistance
     The federal child and dependent care tax credit lets working parents deduct part of their child care expenses from their federal income taxes. The credit applies to employment-related expenses and is dependent upon the amount of family income. To qualify, both parents in a two-parent family or the parent in a single-parent family must be working and the child(ren) must be under 13. There is also a Refundable Tax Credit available to low income families with pre-school aged children.
     Dependent Care Assistance Programs are government-sponsored programs offered by some employers as a benefit to their employees. They allow employees to save money by setting aside up to $5000 of pretax earnings to pay for child care for children under 13, thus reducing their taxable income dollar for dollar.
     There is very little New Jersey legislation regarding financial assistance for child care. Some public assistance programs which require job training are obligated to provide support services including child care. There are more than 200 government-funded, nonprofit child care programs. You may be eligible for a voucher if you are working full time or a full-time student. Financial eligibility depends upon family size and annual income. Families above the poverty level pay a sliding fee based on income. However, since there are far more income-eligible families than there are funds available, there is no guarantee of financial assistance.

What To Do

  • Request that your child care provider correct any infractions of state-set minimum standards. Report continued infractions to the Division of Youth and Family Services (800-792-8610).
  • If you suspect that your child is being abused, remove the child from the setting immediately. Report your suspicions to the Division of Youth and Family Services (above).
  • When seeking family day care, ask if the provider has proof of registration. This should mean that the home meets minimum standards.
  • When seeking employment, consider whether prospective employers offer child care options or support.
  • Find out about and take advantage of any tax benefits or financial assistance available to you.

Resources

  • For tax information, call: The Internal Revenue Service (800)829-1040
  • The Association for Children of New Jersey operates an information line about the refundable tax credit for low-income families (800)228-4EIC
  • For information and referrals about child care options near where you live or work contact your county’s child care resource and referral agency (see Appendix for list)
  • Child Care Aware

 

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Separation
     A couple may decide not to live together even if they do not plan to divorce. They may choose to live apart permanently without obtaining any court order. If they want to have various other issues, such as support, custody and visitation, decided at that time as well, they may enter an agreement to that effect in the manner described below in the discussion of divorce. They may also have a court decide such issues by commencing a court action for "Separate Maintenance" or "Divorce from Bed and Board" (also called a limited divorce). Both these procedures can resolve the necessary issues while leaving the couple still married. Issues such as support and custody can also be decided when a restraining order is sought for domestic violence.

What to Do
     Consider whether to seek marriage counseling and whether to consult an attorney. Review the steps below regarding preparations for a divorce and choose those that seem appropriate. If you have decided not to seek a divorce at this time but need issues such as support, custody and visitation resolved, begin an action for custody and support, Separate Maintenance or Divorce from Bed and Board.

Understanding Divorce

The Law
     Divorce legally terminates marriage when a court issues a "Final Judgment of Divorce." In order to bring a legal action for divorce, an individual must have been a resident of New Jersey for at least one year. The one-year residency requirement does not apply if divorce is sought on the grounds of adultery. The legal grounds in New Jersey for a divorce include the following causes:

  • Eighteen month separation: This is the most common ground for divorce. It is referred to as a "no fault" divorce because neither spouse needs to prove that the other was responsible for the break up of the marriage. The law requires that during the separation the parties have lived in separate residences, and that there is no prospect of reconciliation.
  • Adultery: Either a heterosexual or homosexual relationship can constitute adultery.
  • Willful and Continuous Desertion for Twelve or more Months: A spouse’s refusal to engage in sexual relations qualifies as desertion.
  • Extreme Cruelty: Physical or mental acts of cruelty that make it improper or unreasonable to expect an abused spouse to continue to live under such conditions. There is a waiting period of three months from the last act of cruelty before a divorce complaint can be filed.
  • Deviant Sexual Conduct: The conduct must be voluntarily performed and without the other spouse’s consent.
  • Habitual Drunkenness or Voluntary Addiction to a Narcotic Drug: This behavior must last for a period of 12 consecutive months.
  • Institutionalization for Mental Illness: Institutional-ization must run for a period of at least 24 consecutive months.
  • Imprisonment: Incarceration must last for 18 or more consecutive months, and there must be no reconciliation if the imprisoned spouse is released prior to the complaint for divorce being filed.

Divorce Preparations

What to Do (if you are considering divorce):

  • Assess your present financial situation.
  • Determine what your financial needs and responsibilities will be after you separate from your spouse.
  • Educate yourself concerning the family assets. You will need information about property accumulated during the marriage in order to ensure that it is fairly divided. After you separate from your spouse, this information could be much more difficult to obtain. You will also need the records to establish what is adequate support while your divorce is pending and sufficient alimony and child support payments once your divorce is final.
  • Read and make copies of any statements relating to the family finances, such as bank statements, brokerage account statements, wills, mortgage applications, insurance policies (health and life), any pension plan, medical and dental plans, and any financial statements concerning your spouse’s business.
  • Read carefully and copy income tax returns for the last three years, including attachments.
  • Keep copies of statements and receipts for household and family expenses, such as mortgage or rent payments, insurance premiums, utilities, repairs, medical and dental care, food and clothing, transportation, education and child care.
  • Keep documentation of assets in a safe place outside the home.
  • Keep as much money as you can in your own bank account so you have funds available for legal costs and divorce-related expenses.
  • Get a credit card or charge account in your own name.
  • Consider hiring a lawyer. Some people with little property and few debts have handled their own divorces, using forms found in libraries. The clerk of the Family Division in the Court House in the county where you live can tell you which forms need to be filed. But a lawyer is a good investment, especially if property, debts and/or children are involved. Choose one who is knowledgeable about matrimonial matters and with whom you feel comfortable.
  • Consider using a divorce mediator if you and your spouse can agree to do so. The best mediators are usually lawyers who know the law. Hiring a divorce mediator may save money if it prevents a prolonged legal battle. The mediator assists both of you, as a neutral third party, to reach agreement on all the issues and does not take sides. You should have a lawyer review any mediated statements.

The Property Settlement Agreement
     You and your husband will save time and money if you can enter a written agreement stating how support, child custody and visitation issues are to be handled, and how health and life insurance, property acquired during the marriage, and debts are to be handled.
     A court will enforce the agreement unless it is unconscionable. A spouse who later fails to comply with the agreement can be ordered to do so by court order. The agreement will also be made part of the divorce judgment to govern each party’s rights after the divorce.

Equitable Distribution
     During a divorce proceeding, all assets acquired during the marriage are equitably divided between the parties. This does not mean that the division of assets is equal, but that it is fair under the circumstances of the particular case. If the parties do not come to an agreement concerning a division of the material assets, a court will divide the property.

The Law
     The law requires that a judge consider the following factors in making such a division:

  • Duration of the marriage;
  • The age and physical and emotional health of the parties;
  • The standard of living established during the marriage;
  • Any written agreement made by the parties before the marriage concerning a division of the material property;
  • The economic circumstances of each spouse at the time the division of property becomes effective;
  • The income and earning ability of each party, including educational background, training, employment skills, work experience, length of absence from the job market, custodial responsibility for children, and the time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party to become self-supporting at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage;
  • The contribution by each party to the education, training or earning power of the other;
  • The contribution of each spouse to the acquisition of the material property, including the contribution of the spouse as a homemaker;
  • The debts and liabilities of the parties.
  • The judge may consider the following:
  • The tax consequences of the proposed distribution to each party;
  • The present value of the property;
  • The need of a parent who has physical custody of a child to own or occupy the marital residence and to use or own the household effects (note: custody in and of itself is not necessarily grounds for occupying the marital residence);
  • The need for the creation of a trust fund for reasonably foreseeable medical or educational costs for a spouse or children; and
  • Any other factors which the court may deem relevant.

Alimony and Child Support
     Support payments aim to maintain the dependent spouse and the children at the standard of living they had become accustomed to prior to the separation. Alimony enables the supported spouse to share in the economic rewards of the marriage, which were reached as a result of the combined efforts of both spouses.
     A court will award alimony based primarily on the actual need of the dependent spouse, the ability of the supporting spouse to pay, and the duration of the marriage. A court must consider the earning capacities, education, vocational skills and employability of the parties, and the time and expense needed to educate a spouse for a return to the labor market. Alimony ends when one spouse dies, the spouse receiving alimony remarries, circumstances change and the court terminates the award, or at such time as a settlement entered into by both parties states that it will end.
     Child support is based on a child’s legal right to be supported according to the standard of living she had while her parents were together. Each parent has a legal obligation to contribute towards child support based on ability to do so. The state has enacted a law providing for the revocation or suspension of a driver’s, professional or occupational license of a parent who is more than six months in arrears on child support payments, has an arrest warrant out for not paying child support or for not appearing at a hearing to enforce a paternity or support order, or who has failed to pay a child’s health insurance for more than six months. Child support obligations end when the child reaches 18; however, parents may be required to continue to support and to contribute to the cost of the child’s college education when they are financially able to do so. Support obligations may also continue past 18 for a disabled child.
     Alimony and child support may consist of either direct payments to the supported spouse or non-cash indirect payments, such as rent, mortgage payments, property taxes or any other expenses associated with a home. Support orders may be temporary or permanent.
     A new law requires that the responsibilities of both parties toward raising the children must be considered when the amount of alimony is set. Another new law requires a spouse who collects alimony to notify the other spouse and any collection agency for the alimony if she remarries.

What to Do
      Remember to provide for the time between the filing of a matrimonial action and a final court hearing. If your spouse is not voluntarily providing you and your children with adequate support, apply to the court for an order requiring support during this period. Your application can also request that your spouse pay your attorney fees and that the issue of custody of your children and visitation be considered. You will need to support your request with documentation concerning your living and household expenses.
     Make sure that the support requested is sufficient to meet all of your bills and your family’s bills: this level of support is often ordered to continue after the divorce is final. Therefore, do not overlook any personal or household expenses when making a request for temporary support.
     After your divorce, if your ex-spouse fails to comply with support obligations, you can apply to the court for an order requiring him to pay. If he then violates this order, a judgment can be entered and you can garnish his wages or levy against his property for the judgment amount. The court can also require your ex-spouse to pay future support through the county probation department; a probation officer will take appropriate actions to enforce the support order.

Child Custody and Visitation
     If both spouses agree on who will have custody of their children, a court will not interfere with the decision as long as it is in the best interests of the children. However, when both parents want custody, the court must determine which parent can provide the best home for the children. Neither parent has an automatic right to the children. As a practical matter, the court will generally award custody to the parent who has been the primary caretaker (the parent who actually dressed, fed and otherwise cared for the child). Very young children are usually found to be better left with the mother especially if she has been the primary caretaker. If the child is old enough to have an opinion, the child’s preference may be taken into consideration.
     In many cases, where appropriate, the court will award joint legal custody in which both parents share the right and responsibility to make major decisions regarding the child’s welfare. The parents then may alternate physical custody of the child, depending on the needs of the parents, such as their work schedules, and the child’s school and after school activities. Joint custody will only be appropriate when it is in the best interests of the child
    In most cases where a parent does not have legal custody of the child, he will be given visitation (now officially known as "parenting time") rights. Usually visitation is liberally granted, as long as it is in the best interests of the child. A non-custodial parent cannot be denied the right to visitation because his child support obligations have not been met.

What to Do
    When support is not paid, apply for court enforcement of the provisions of the court’s prior order. Do not withhold visitation. A court may impose sanctions for violation of a visitation order and this may consist of community service, compensatory visitation time, monetary compensation and counsel fees. The court can also impose santions against a parent who does not live up to parenting time responsibilities.
     Custody and visitation may be restricted or terminated when the relationship of one or both parents with the child causes emotional or physical harm to the child, or when the parent is shown to be unfit, or when special temporary circumstances require.

Religious Terminations
     Once a judgment for divorce has been granted by the civil court (Superior Court of New Jersey), a party may wish to annul or terminate the marriage according to the rules of her religious faith. The two most common proceedings of this type are the Jewish Get and the Catholic annulment. Consult your clergy for information. You may want to include provisions in your divorce settlement so a court can enforce agreements concerning religous termination.

Health Insurance
    While the judgment of divorce terminates your rights to coverage under your spouse’s insurance policy, your right to continue coverage under the COBRA law at the group rate is discussed in the chapter on Health Issues. A recent law provides that when custody, visitation or support of a minor child is at issue in an action, the party who has been paying any part of health, disability, home or life insurance up to that time must continue doing so. If coverage changes because of a change in employment, that party must notify the other party, who may then petition to have the court re-allocate such payment.

Social Security Benefits
     Even if your ex-husband remarries, you are entitled to social security benefits based upon his earnings if you were married at least ten years.

Resources

 

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  • Divorce Actions · Naturalization Proceedings
  • General Name Change Action

     The law permits you to use any name you like without having to follow any formal procedure whatever. You can just assume the name and tell your relatives, friends and others. This only becomes a legal concern when it is done to defraud creditors or avoid the law. A woman who chooses to take her husband’s name at marriage can simply do so informally. Otherwise, to change your name on official identification records, such as on your birth certificate, driver’s license, or social security card, you will need a court paper described below.
      There are different ways to change your name:

Divorce Actions
     To return to using your maiden name or any other prior name (such as a name by a prior marriage), simply request this in your court papers and make sure this right is included in the judgment of divorce. This method cannot be used to change to some new name that you never used or to change the names of your children. If you do not resume your birth name during the divorce proceeding, it will be more difficult and expensive to do it later.

Naturalization Proceedings
     You can take a new name when you become a citizen. Request this in your Petition for Naturalization and see that your Certificate of Naturalization is in this new name.

General Name Change Action
     File a complaint in Superior Court with a sworn affidavit stating your name, social security number, date of birth, and whether there are any criminal convictions or pending criminal charges (if so, give details). State that the name change is not being brought to perpetrate any fraud, avoid lawful creditors or avoid or obstruct criminal prosecution. If criminal charges are pending, serve the papers on the prosecuting authority. You may wish to state the reason for the request. You may seek to change the name of your child in your custody but must send the papers to the father’s last known address. Consider using an attorney.
     The judge will sign an order setting a date at least 30 days later. That order must be published in the legal classifieds of a newspaper of general circulation in your county at least two weeks before the hearing. If no one objects and the judge at the hearing finds that the name request is reasonable, an order will be signed allowing you to assume the new name after at least 30 days.
     You must publish another newspaper notice within 20 days containing the judge’s order and, within 45 days, must file the court’s order and an affidavit confirming the post-order notice publication with the deputy clerk of the Superior Court in the county. Also file a certified copy of the court order with the Secretary of State, and send copies to all agencies, creditors and others to get a new identification or a change in their records. Be sure to notify not only Social Security, the Division of Motor Vehicles, and your bank but (if applicable) your welfare office or any appropriate licensing authority for your trade or profession. Send a certified copy of the order to the State Registrar’s office to get a new birth or marriage certificate. Send all letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep copies.


 

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The League of Women Voters of New Jersey Education Fund gratefully acknowledges underwriting of this online Women's Guide by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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