Many times I have been asked whether New Jersey has a form of legal separation. The answer? The closest form of legal separation is what is known by statute as divorce from "bed and board," also known as a "limited divorce." In simple terms, it means that two spouses have obtained a divorce from a financial standpoint, but they are still actually, legally married. Assets are distributed, support is determined. Notably, both parties must agree and request to a divorce in this form pursuant to the divorce from bed and board statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-6.
The statute even says that the grounds upon which the divorce is based are the same available in a standard divorce situation. As the parties are still legally married, they can then later reconcile, apply for a revocation or suspension of the Judgment of Divorce or, should no reconciliation occur, either may apply to the court for a conversion of the divorce from bed and board to that of a standard divorce "from the bounds of matrimony." The conversion application must be granted to the requesting party. A divorce from bed and board allows each party to acquire property free of the rights that the other party would have if there were no divorce in place. Similarly, such a divorce prevents a spouse from inheriting the other spouse’s property at that spouse’s death where there existed no Will.
This type of divorce was recently at issue in Pipitone v. Pipitone, an unreported (not precedential) decision from the Appellate Division holding that the bed and board statute does not mandate that an alimony award, entered into years after the bed and board divorce, must be deemed retroactive to the date of the bed and board divorce order. Simply put, such an award is prospective only. The Appellate Division reasoned that, in a situation where one spouse attempts to convert a bed and board divorce into an divorce from the bounds of matrimony or "absolute" divorce, there is an opportunity to revisit the support and distribution terms of the prior property settlement agreement.
While the property acquisition freedom associated with a bed and board divorce may be beneficial to some, many people avoid this antiquated concept and prefer to end the bonds of matrimony with an absolute divorce so that the legal attachment to the other that remains with a bed and board divorce no longer exists.