The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rimm
This is a local property tax matter in which plaintiff, claiming that she is the surviving spouse of a 100% permanently disabled veteran, seeks exemption from local property taxation for her home under N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b). The subject property is a single family residence located at 300 West End Avenue, Neptune Township. The property is designated as block 302.21, lot 1 on the municipal tax map.
Plaintiff, Mary E. Jackson, married James Jackson on April 20, 1965. In December of 1967, they purchased the subject property and lived there together. They owned the property jointly, as tenants by the entirety. In June of 1972, the United States Veterans' Administration declared James Jackson to be a 100% disabled veteran. As a result of that government declaration and pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(a), James Jackson's residence became exempt from property taxes beginning in 1973 and was exempt for the tax year 1993.
By a deed dated January 21, 1993, James Jackson and Mary E. Jackson jointly conveyed the subject property to plaintiff, Mary E. Jackson, individually. On February 16, 1993, after almost twenty-eight years of marriage, plaintiff obtained a divorce from bed and board from James Jackson pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-3. Both plaintiff and James Jackson continued to live together for at least some of the time until James Jackson's death in April, 1993. At the present time, plaintiff lives by herself in the subject property.
For the 1994 tax year, defendant, Township of Neptune, denied an exemption from local property taxation for plaintiff's property and assessed the subject property as follows:
Plaintiff then filed a petition of appeal with the Monmouth County Board of Taxation seeking exemption for the subject property. In a memorandum of judgment dated June 28, 1994, the Monmouth County Board of Taxation denied plaintiff's exemption request. On an attached sheet explaining the basis for the judgment, the County Board noted that the marital home had been transferred to plaintiff in January of 1993. *fn1
On September 13, 1994, plaintiff filed a complaint with the Tax Court of New Jersey demanding judgment exempting her property from local property taxes. On September 18, 1995, plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment with the Tax Court, seeking a determination that the subject property is exempt from local property taxation under N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b).
In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff asserts that there is only one legal issue before the court. Plaintiff claims that, while she did obtain a divorce from bed and board from James Jackson, the judgment had no effect on her legal status as James Jackson's wife. Plaintiff argues that she is James Jackson's widow and therefore qualifies for exemption under N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b), as his surviving spouse.
Defendant does not dispute any of the facts in this case, but contends that there are two legal issues before the court. Defendant argues that, when plaintiff obtained the divorce from bed and board from James Jackson, she ceased to be his wife and cannot now qualify as his surviving spouse under the exemption statute. Defendant also contends that following the transfer of the subject property from the joint ownership of plaintiff and her husband to the sole ownership of plaintiff in January of 1993, the property no longer qualified for an exemption because it was no longer owned by a permanently disabled veteran. Defendant asserts that since there was no exemption available to James Jackson upon his death, there is no exemption available to plaintiff.
The Legislature has established both absolute divorce and divorce from bed and board in New Jersey. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2 establishes the requirements for a judgment of absolute divorce. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-3 sets out the requirements for a judgment of divorce from bed and board. In Lavino v. Lavino, 23 N.J. 635 (1957), the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that the difference between the two types of divorce was that "absolute divorce dissolves the marital bond and all dower rights are barred. In [divorce from bed and board] the marital bond subsists. . . ." Id. at 639 (citations omitted); Weinkrantz v. Weinkrantz 129 N.J. Super. 28, 32 (App. Div. 1974); Mueller v. Mueller, 95 N.J. Super. 244, 247 (App. Div. 1967) (Divorce from bed and board is not a true divorce since it does not dissolve the bonds of matrimony but merely decrees a judicial separation.). Significantly, in order to remarry after having obtained a judgment of divorce from bed and board, the parties must apply to the court for conversion of the bed and board divorce to an absolute divorce. See N.J.S.A. 2A:34-3; Rudin v. Rudin, 104 N.J. Eq. 524, 525 (Ch. 1929).
The primary purpose for obtaining a divorce from bed and board is to terminate the marital obligations of cohabitation and support. Lavino, (supra) at 639. Divorce from bed and board is "the closest analogy to a 'legal separation' provided in New Jersey divorce laws. . . ." 1 Gary N. Skoloff & Laurence J. Cutler, New Jersey Family Law Practice § 2.6 at 585 (7th ed. 1994). A married couple might choose to obtain a judgment of divorce from bed and board rather than an absolute divorce for religious reasons. They may no longer wish to live together, but their religious faith may prevent the couple from officially dissolving the bonds of matrimony.
Here, the facts before the court suggest that plaintiff and her husband obtained a divorce from bed and board in an attempt to protect plaintiff's rights to certain veteran-related benefits. These benefits included medical insurance, commissary ...