While New Jersey laws provide seven distinct fault grounds for divorce, most couples choose no fault grounds (separation or irreconcilable differences) in order to avoid a lengthy divorce trial. This may be the best option if you and your spouse can negotiate on the basics like custody arrangements, financial support and property division. There are, however, some very serious and disturbing circumstances that may necessitate the filing of a fault-based complaint. It may be essential, for example, to file under “extreme cruelty” in cases where there has been a history of domestic abuse. For victims with children, this would more or less ensure them primary custody, although the abuser usually retains legal custody and visitation rights. It could also give them a better chance of being awarded alimony, especially if they were coerced by their abuser into foregoing educational and/or career opportunities that may have led to self-sufficiency.
In addition to fault grounds, spouses can also file tort claims for monetary damages, on top of alimony and child support. Torts are usually associated with class action suits against major corporations, but a tort claim is simply a legal action, which seeks compensation for a wrongdoing or infringement of one's rights. Within a marriage, torts can include marital rape, wrongful death, defamation, attempted murder, and being infected with a sexually transmitted disease. There are, however, no specific list of acts that count as marital torts, which means that it's up to the judge to determine whether additional monetary compensation should be awarded to the complainant.
In New Jersey, the landmark case concerning marital tort is Tevis v. Tevis (1979), in which the wife sued the husband for damages resulting from physical battery. The wife was awarded $25,000 in compensation, and $10,000 in punitive damages, even though the husband argued that the action should be barred under the two-year statute of limitations under New Jersey's Administration of Civil and Criminal Justice laws. The husband had also claimed interspousal immunity, which is a legal doctrine that prohibits one spouse from suing another. However, in the 1978 case Merenoff v. Merenoff, the court overturned interspousal privilege in cases where individuals sought compensation for injuries that were directly caused by their spouse. Thus, the wife was allowed to sue her husband for physically assaulting her and causing significant injuries, as corroborated by photographic evidence and testimony from her treating physician.
Another interesting aspect of this ruling is the” single controversy doctrine”, which barred any marital tort claims from being raised once the divorce was final. This means that a marital tort must be raised in the divorce complaint, and be sufficiently related to the divorce action in order to be resolved as part of the divorce. If not, it may be classified as a general civil action, which would be tried separately from the divorce. For more information on suing for marital tort, please speak with the experienced divorce attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.