March 21 2010

An Introduction to Pennsylvania Divorce Law

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Divorce is the legal process of ending a marriage in Pennsylvania. However, when most people think about "divorce," they usually also think about related claims, such as equitable distribution, which is the legal process of dividing up marital property in Pennsylvania, support claims (such as alimony pendente lite, and spousal support), and sometimes even custody and child support claims. While all of those claims can be included in a divorce action, this introduction will focus exclusively on the actual divorce aspect of a case.

Pennsylvania divorces can be broken down into two major categories, fault divorce and no-fault divorce.

Since the introduction of the no-fault divorce law in Pennsylvania, the vast majority of divorces proceed as no-fault divorces. In general, the only exception to the rule is in cases where (i) the spouse desiring to move a divorce forward is not at fault and has fault grounds against the other spouse (adultery for example), (ii) the at-fault spouse is not willing to agree to a divorce, and (iii) the spouse seeking the divorce is not willing wait two years to obtain a divorce. Even when a fault divorce is filed, the divorce usually ends up proceeding as a no-fault divorce. For more information on fault divorces, please see our related article Litigating Pennsylvania Fault Divorces.

Pennsylvania no-fault divorces can be further broken down into two categories, consent divorces and two-year separation divorces.

Consent divorces are, as their name implies, divorces in which both spouses agree to get divorced and are willing to sign affidavits of consent to the divorce. Consent divorces can proceed as soon as 90 days after service of the divorce complaint, provided that both parties sign all of the necessary paperwork. However, even in cases where the parties are especially cooperative, which is unusual, and all of the paperwork is in order, it generally takes several more weeks to actually obtain a divorce decree. Also, if related claims are raised in the divorce action, such as a claim for the division of marital property (i.e. equitable distribution) that have not already been worked out between the parties, obtaining a divorce anywhere close to the 90-day mark is very unlikely. Since most divorces involve equitable distribution claims, divorcing spouses should, in general, not expect quick divorces unless there are no marital assets to divide and the parties are in agreement to obtain the divorce quickly.

Two-year separation divorces apply to marriages where one spouse is not willing to agree to a divorce. There are a variety of reasons that an estranged spouse may not agree to a consent divorce. The two most common reasons, however, are (i) they do not want the divorce and (ii) they perceive that there is an economic advantage for them to delay the divorce (for example, to extend support payments, to extend health insurance coverage, or to be able to continue to use a marital asset such as the marital residence). In short, in two-year separation divorces, either spouse can move a divorce forward towards conclusion without the other spouse's consent two years after the date of separation. However, as with consent divorces, a party should not expect to obtain a divorce right at the two-year separation mark. The two-year separation mark is merely the date that a party can start to move the divorce forward. Even in the best cases, obtaining a divorce will still usually take several months or more. The two-year separation is measured from the date of the separation, which is presumed under Pennsylvania divorce law to be the date that the divorce complaint is filed. However, a party can establish a prior date of separation if they can establish a date after which the parties no longer acted or held themselves out as husband and wife.

Although a Pennsylvania divorce is not obtainable until anywhere from 90 days to two years or more, that does not mean that a person cannot separate themselves from a spouse financially at an earlier date. The critical date for financial separation is the date of separation. Certain actions taken between separation and divorce, however, can potentially impact claims in divorce, such as a change in employment or cohabitation (living with a member of the opposite sex). Therefore, it is best to consult with a Pennsylvania divorce attorney as early as possible if you are consider a divorce or believe that your spouse is considering a divorce.

The attorneys at Cooley & Handy have extensive experience representing clients in divorce, support, child custody and family law matters. If you believe that you need legal advice concerning your divorce or family law matter, we encourage you to contact our office to schedule a consultation. We can help you understand the process and know your options.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. If you are seeking legal advice concerning a divorce or any other matter, please contact us by telephone or e-mail to schedule a consultation.

© 2010 Cooley & Handy

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