For years New Jersey only had one no fault ground for divorce — eighteen month separation — which requires that husband and wife live separate and apart in different residences, where the parties have not engaged in sexual relations with one another, for a period of at least eighteen or more consecutive months. In the case of eighteen month separation, neither party may file a complaint for divorce until after the eighteen month period. The rationale behind this no fault ground is that the State of New Jersey has an interest in preserving family life, and therefore created a eighteen month “cooling off period” when parties do not have fault grounds upon which to divorce.
The reality of the matter is that most people choose not to wait eighteen months due to their desire to quickly terminate the marriage and move on with their lives. This need for quick results lead an overwhelming majority of couples, who had no actual fault grounds for divorce and who could not wait over a year to file for divorce, to file under extreme mental cruelty, which requires that the complaint be filed only three months from the date of the last act of cruelty complained of. Extreme mental cruelty is commonly defined as behavior considered so extremely mentally cruel that it becomes unreasonable to live together as husband and wife. By its very definition, this “fault” ground for divorce is so subjective that anything could really pass as being so extremely mentally cruel that it becomes unreasonable to live together as a married couple.
In fact, many family law practitioners would file what is known as a “vanilla” complaint for extreme mental cruelty for those plaintiffs whose reasons for wanting a divorce did not qualify under any other type of fault ground. Examples of claims alleged in a “vanilla” complaint for extreme mental cruelty are: 1) Defendant has been personally cold and disaffectionate towards the Plaintiff; 2) Defendant has ridiculed and criticized the Plaintiff ; and 3) Defendant has told the Plaintiff on numerous occasions that he no longer loves or cares for her. While these claims certainly got the job done under the extreme mental cruelty ground, it wasn’t until the Legislature enacted the irreconcilable differences statute that parties were able to file for divorce by alleging one simple claim.
The quasi no fault cause of action requires that the plaintiff allege that irreconcilable differences have caused a breakdown of the marriage for a period of six months, which make it appear that the marriage should be dissolved and that there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation. Further, irreconcilable differences do not require that the parties live separate or apart and many people are surprised to learn that they may live together after commencing a divorce action. Thus, today, filing for divorce is arguably easier than applying for a marriage license. Divorce, itself, however, is often an emotionally charged and extremely trying experience for both parties and should not be taken lightly.