Navigating the FD Docket: Court Forms and Procedures for Parents Who Were Never Married
The Courts in New Jersey have a specific set of forms and procedures for unmarried parents who are going through child-related legal disputes such as custody, parenting time, child support, college contribution, medical expenses, extracurricular activities, and camp expenses. The cases are handled by the Family Division and are referred to as “non-dissolution” matters and are assigned docket numbers that begin with the letters “FD.” Non-dissolution matters are heard by family law judges; however, the cases involve forms and procedures that are very different from divorces.
It is common for people working their way through non-dissolution cases to represent themselves in Court. It is so common, in fact, that the Courts have created packets for self-represented parties to file their case, complete with extensive checklists and instructions. The Court first published the forms in 2011 but have updated them and published new packets on September 3, 2019, which are available on the Court’s website. The packets contain either a Complaint for parents who are taking their disputes to Court for the first time, or Applications for Modification for parents who want to change something in an existing Court Order. Both packets of forms are a mix of “fill in the blank,” “open-ended,” and “multiple choice” questions which are the parents’ first opportunity to educate the judge on who their family is and what problem needs to be solved.
Even though it is common for parents to attempt to represent themselves in non-dissolution matters, it is far from ideal. The Court’s own packet recognizes this, and the first substantive page of the packet specifically states that the law, proofs, and court rules are complex, and that a person looking at the packet should make every effort to get an attorney. An attorney will know which “buzz words” to use in telling the judge their client’s side of the story in a way that will educate the judge and perhaps persuade them to rule in their client’s favor.
The packets also contain a document titled “Financial Statement for Summary Support Actions” which asks parents about their weekly pay, taxes, and deductions. Parents are also required to attach their three latest pay stubs, their most recent W-2, and their most recent tax returns. The purpose of the Financial Statement for Summary Support Actions is to provide the Court with the information it needs to calculate child support.
Once a Complaint or Application is filed, the Court will send a computer-generated notice to both parents notifying them that something has been filed, listing a date and time to appear in Court, and indicating which judge will hear their case. Although court rules typically require people filing paperwork with the Court to send a copy to the other person involved in the case, in the FD docket, it is the Court’s responsibility to mail a copy of the paperwork to the other parent. Both parents are required to appear on the scheduled court date.
The other parent will also have the opportunity to tell their side of the story in writing before the court date. If one parent filed a Complaint, the other parent may choose to file a Counterclaim. If one parent filed an Application for Modification, the other parent may file a Cross-Application. The court rules typically require Counterclaims and Cross-Applications to be filed no later than 15 days before a scheduled court date; however, it is, unfortunately, common in FD cases for Courts to not strictly enforce these deadlines. Once the Counterclaim or Cross-Application has been filed, the parent who filed the original Complaint or Application may file a Reply with the Court. The Reply is supposed to be filed no later than 8 days before the scheduled court date in accordance with the court rules.
On the scheduled court date, the judge might encourage the parents (or their attorneys) to try to work out a settlement before arguing their respective sides of the story in the courtroom. If the parties are unable to settle, the judge will listen to both side's arguments and then issue a “Uniform Summary Support Order.”
Parents attempting to resolve their disputes directly with each other in the hallways of the courthouse is not ideal. If it were that simple, parents would not get to the point where they needed to file Complaints and Applications in the first place. Also, arguing a case in Court is a task best suited for an attorney. An attorney will be able to use their knowledge of legal concepts instead of falling into emotional arguments that tend to occur when someone is fighting with their child’s other parent.