Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

In a New Jersey Divorce, What Does Bed & Board Mean?

As a New Jersey Divorce Attorney I am aware that medical insurance continues to be a prominent yet usually difficult issue for many divorce litigants.  Throughout my career this issue leads to an explanation of a New Jersey Bed and Board Divorce (also known as a limited divorce). It is extremely similar to a legal separation and often referred to as a judicial separation, separate maintenance, or its Latin name “divorce a mensa et thoro.” Divorce from Bed and Board is different from the traditional divorce known as a Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony, “vinculo matrimoni,” because it requires a mutual application. Additionally, a Divorce from Bed and Board must be based on one of the detailed grounds for a Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony.

What exactly is Divorce from Bed and Board?

Divorce from Bed and Board is a legal process in which both spouses of a marriage choose not to live together anymore. As opposed to a Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony, a Divorce from Bed and Board does not break the bonds of matrimony. Spouses who are legally separated by Divorce from Bed and Board are not obligated to live together, but are still subject to other responsibilities that come with being married. These spouses, although living separate, must still be faithful, respectful of the other’s wants and needs, and provide assistance to the other when necessary.

Why seek a Divorce from Bed and Board as opposed to a Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony?

There are many reasons why couples would seek a Divorce from Bed and Board as opposed to a Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony. First and foremost, some couples simply do not want to carry the stigma associated with a traditional Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony. Although traditional divorce is more common in today’s society, there are still plenty of couples that believe that getting a formal divorce is taboo. Additionally, couples would seek a Divorce from Bed and Board for moral or religious reasons. In particular, since the Catholic religion condemns divorce, it is not uncommon for Catholics to seek legal separation rather than a Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony.

Another reason why couples would seek a Divorce from Bed and Board is if there is a possibility of the couple reconciling and getting back together. This is common if spouses are experiencing problems in the marriage, either physically, emotionally, or verbally, yet wish to work out their differences. In this type of situation, the couple could simply resume their marriage once their problems were sorted out and would not have to go through a legal process to continue the marriage.   

Furthermore, another major and now controversial reason a couple would seek a Divorce from Bed and Board is so that the legally separated spouses can continue to receive health insurance benefits from the other spouse’s employee health plan. Since there is not an absolute divorce, the employer’s health plan does not conclude the separated spouse’s insurance benefits. However, New Jersey legislators are currently proposing to eliminate the Divorce from Bed and Board statute or modify it because of this controversial issue it creates. Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer of Ocean County, New Jersey is one of the more recent legislators who is proposing to either eliminate the statute entirely or to modify the statute so that it is illegal to provide publicly funded healthcare benefit plans to an employee’s spouse who is separated through Bed and Board.   

Moreover, couples that seek a Divorce from Bed and Board are still entitled to receive several government benefits that married couples enjoy. Lastly, if one spouse dies, the surviving spouse can still receive the others pension benefits.  

What are some drawbacks of Divorce from Bed and Board?

One major drawback of a Divorce from Bed and Board is that if one spouse dies and has left the other nothing under his or her will, that person is not entitled to make claims against the estate. Based on the New Jersey case In re Friedman’s Will, 83 N.J. Super. 116 (App. Div. 1964), all equitable distribution issues are determined at the time the Divorce from Bed and Board action commences. Along the same lines, another disadvantage of a Divorce from Bed and Board is that any property acquired by either spouse after the action is filed is not eligible for equitable distribution. Therefore, if one spouse were to inherit money from a family member or win the lottery, the other spouse would not be entitled to any of the newly inherited money.      

What is the legal authority to support a Divorce from Bed and Board?

The New Jersey statutes, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-3 and N.J.S.A. 2A:34-6 are reproduced below. The first sets forth the legally recognized causes for a Divorce from Bed and Board and also the laws applicable to partners in a civil union:

(a)   Divorce from Bed and Board may be adjudged for the same causes as Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony whenever both parties petition or join in requesting such relief and they, or either of them, present sufficient proof of such cause or causes to warrant the entry of a Judgment of Divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony, provided further that in the case of a reconciliation, thereafter, the parties may apply for a revocation or suspension of the judgment, and provided further that the granting of a Bed and Board divorce shall in no way prejudice either party from, thereafter, applying to the court for a conversion of said divorce to a divorce from the Bonds of Matrimony, which application shall be granted as a matter of right.

(b)  Legal separation from a partner in a civil union couple may be adjudged for the same causes as dissolution of a civil union whenever both parties petition, or join in requesting such relief and they, or either of them, present sufficient proof of such cause or causes to warrant the entry of a judgment of dissolution of a civil union, provided further that in the case of a reconciliation, thereafter, the parties may apply for a revocation or suspension of the judgment, and provided further that the granting of a legal separation from a partner in a civil union couple shall in no way prejudice either party from, thereafter, applying to the court for a conversion of said legal separation from a partner in a civil union couple, to a dissolution of a civil union, which application shall be granted as a matter of right.

The second statute sets forth the property rights spouses are entitled to in the event of a Divorce from bed and board:

(a)   For and during the time that any judgment for divorce from bed and board shall remain in force and effect all property rights of the parties shall be as though a judgment of absolute divorce had been entered. In any property transaction had by either of the parties in such status the fact of the existence of such judgment shall be distinctly recited and reference to the public record thereof shall be clearly set forth.