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What is the Early Settlement Program (ESP) All About?
What is the ESP?

The early settlement panel is an alternative dispute resolution program. The goal of the early settlement program is as the name implies to try to have the parties reach a settlement of the issues in dispute between you and your spouse as soon as possible and in the most efficient manner. Settlements end the litigation and avoid a costly trial and possible appeal. A settlement also eases the emotional burden that is associated with litigated matrimonial cases. It is very important for the parties to make an all out effort to settlement their case at the ESP hearing. Divorce litigation costs big bucks, and it is just plain stupid to engage in endless court battles if you can avoid to do so.

Who are the panelists?

The early settlement panel is comprised of attorneys who are very experienced in family law. These men and women volunteer their time to participated in the program and receive no pay for their efforts. Their goal is a simple one to effect justice between the parties at the lowest possible costs both emotional and financial and to help the parties come to a fair settlement of the matters in dispute between the spouses. Most of the panels in each county consist of two panelists, although if there is a heavy calender then a single attorney may comprise the panel.

What is the process of the ESP program?

The panelists will hear both sides of a case. Thereafter, they review your supporting documents that include each party's case information statement. Both lawyers are required to prepare an ESP memo and provide this document to the panelists. This memo will outline your position on child support, alimony, equitable distribution, the apportionment of debts, the treatment of the marital home, and any others issues that deal with the distribution of marital assets.The lawyers will then listen to the lawyers for both sides and then will speak to you and your spouse directly.

The members of the Early Settlement Panel will then confer between them and make a recommendation for a settlement of your case. It is important for you to know that the recommendation of the Early Settlement Panel will be a well-reasoned one, and it will be based upon the panelist's interpretation of the law, the fairness and the equitable factors in your case, and the likeliness of the judge's decision if the case is tried.

What type of legal issues does the ESP panel deal with?

It is important to note that the ESP Panel only deals with the financial and the property distribution of your case. The panelists do not deal with issues of custody or visitation.

What if I do not accept the recommendation of the panel?

The choice as to whether the accept or reject the recommendation of the panel is yours alone. No one at the court will be "holding a gun toward your head" and trying to force you to accept the recommendation. The guidance of the ESP panel is a truly voluntary one. The recommendation of the panelists is not binding on you or your spouse. You are not legally obligated to accept it. It is important to emphasize that the judge assigned to your case is not even permitted to be advised as to what is the ESP recommendation actually is. The sole purpose of the recommendation is to pre-try the case. Once the case is pre-tried then this will give the parties a better idea as to how their case should be settled.

Nonetheless, you should never forget that you do have the right to have a trial. Be warned though, trials costs big bucks and they go on and on for months. There are hardly any continuous trials anymore. You try your case a day here, and a day the next week. The case is adjourned again. The next month you may get another court date. Get the message, your case will drag on endlessly. Therefore, it is important to try to settle your case the ESP hearing. The goal of the Early Settlement Panel is to assist you in arriving at a fair and just settlement in the shortest time possible and at the lowest possible cost. You are urged, therefore, to carefully consider the recommendation of your panelists. If you case is not settled with the assistance of the ESP Panel, then you case will be conferenced by a judge and it will be scheduled for a trial.

What happens if we accept the recommendation of the early settlement panel?

If you and your spouse, as guided by your lawyer(s), agree to accept the recommendation of the ESP Panel or agree to the terms of the settlement based on the settlement discussions between you, then the agreement will be immediately placed "on the record,"before a judge. That is, both of you will testify, under oath, that you understand the terms of the settlement and that you agree to be bound by it. At that time, the evidence with respect to the cause of action for divorce will also be heard by the judge. Usually, you will be divorced on the same day that the case was heard by the Early Settlement Panel.

Could you please summarize how the ESP Panel works?

To summarize:

  • You will meet with the panel.
  • You do not have to accept the recommendation of the panel.
  • If you and your spouse accept the recommendation of the panel, then your divorce will be finalized that same day, provided that there is sufficient evidence to warrant a judgment for divorce.
  • If you do not accept that recommendation of the panel, then your case will be conferenced by a judge and then scheduled for a trial.

In conclusion, any clients should take the ESP process seriously. A settlement permits you much greater input by you and your spouse into finally reaching a settlement than does a decision that is made by a judge. By settling your case, you and your spouse are able to actively participate in the decision making process. This is not the case when your matter is decided by a judge, whose decision will be based solely upon the evidence presented before the court at the time of trial.

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