New Jersey recognizes a concept called “divorce from bed and board,” which is the closest thing our state has to a “legal separation” for a married couple. It is also referred to as a “Limited Divorce”. Divorce from bed and board does not dissolve the marriage in the way that a traditional divorce does (also referred to as an “absolute divorce”). Because of a peculiarity in New Jersey law, family courts do not have the authority to change a person’s surname as a component of a divorce from bed and board action. This type of name change requires additional steps, and in order to properly file your name change you should consult with a family law attorney.
Any adult or emancipated minor in New Jersey is allowed to legally change his or her name. The normal process for name change is a bit convoluted, and divorce cases often include a name change component. To streamline the process, family courts in New Jersey have the authority to simply order the change of a litigant’s surname back to whatever name was used prior to the marriage or civil union. But a family court’s power is narrowly defined in a section of law titled N.J.S.A 2A:34-21. The section granting this power to a family court judge reads:
“The court, upon or after granting a divorce from the bonds of matrimony to either spouse or dissolution of a civil union to either partner in a civil union couple, may allow either spouse or partner in a civil union couple to resume any name used by the spouse or partner in a civil union couple before the marriage or civil union, or to assume any surname.”
The court has authority to grant name changes in a traditional divorce or dissolution. But a problem arises when a couple has a divorce from bed and board. A divorce from bed and board allows the couple to separate from each other while keeping the actual marriage or civil union intact. Since this isn’t a divorce or dissolution in the truest sense of the word, family law courts are not allowed to use N.J.S.A 2A:34-21 to order the change of a litigant’s surname.
A New Jersey Superior Court Judge recently ruled that in a divorce from bed and board, the “[bonds of matrimony continue in full force and effect].” Therefore, family court judges are not allowed to issue an order of name change in these types of cases. Rather than relying on the streamlined method for name change found in N.J.S.A 2A:34-21, a person who is getting a divorce from bed and board must use the “regular” procedure derived from N.J.S.A 2A:52-1.
This procedure for name change is arduous in a number of ways. There are special mailing requirements and requirements for a newspaper advertisement announcing the name change. There are a number of other hurdles that amount to 17 steps in changing your last name, as well as a number of fees that must be paid to various government agencies. In cases of divorce or the dissolution of a civil union, a family law judge could simply order your name changed. But technical limitations to judicial authority have created a bothersome process for changes that are based on a divorce from bed and board. This is just one of the many problems that can crop up even in an uncontested family law case.
When you are involved in a divorce, the dissolution of a civil union, or a divorce from bed and board, you should seek advice from a qualified New Jersey family law attorney. The experienced attorneys at Goldstein Law Group can help explain your case. Call 732-967-6777, or use the contact link on this page to request a consultation.
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