Divorce & Legal Separation Laws in Pennsylvania

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Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state for divorce, meaning that the court divides marital property so each spouse gets what the court deems is fair under the circumstances. Marital property is defined as property that the spouses own together during the marriage. An example is a house the spouses purchase as a married couple during the marriage.

Equitable distribution does not mean that the court causes a 50-50 split. Such a split would involve each spouse getting exactly half of the marital assets or the value of the marital assets.

Waiting Period for Pennsylvania Divorce

Pennsylvania law does not impose a waiting period for a fault-based divorce case. Grounds for fault include adultery, bigamy, imprisonment, cruel treatment, desertion without reasonable cause and a vague catchall category called “indignities.” State law requires waiting periods for no-fault divorce cases.

Spouses are eligible for a 90-day period from the date of separation if they do not contest issues, such as spousal support. There is a one-year waiting period for a case of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. This circumstance involves estrangement due to marital difficulties with no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.

No Process for Legal Separation

Pennsylvania does not have a process for legal separation. This means that Pennsylvania courts do not recognize separated spouses as having a distinct status between married and divorced. Separation involves spouses living in different residences; dating during separation is not considered adultery.

Pennsylvania courts refer to the “period of separation” as the required waiting period to get a no-fault contested divorce. If the period of separation began on or after December 5, 2016, the spouses must be living separate and apart for one year before filing a divorce complaint.

If the period of separation began before December 5, 2016, the spouses must be living separate and apart for two years before filing a divorce complaint.

Separation Agreement Between Spouses

A separation agreement is a contract between spouses to divide property and resolve issues relating to debts, child custody, child support and alimony. Spouses cannot form a contract that allows the person paying child support to pay less than the statutory required minimum.

The separation agreement takes effect at the time the parties sign it, usually when they agree that they separated.

Alimony and Spousal Support

In Pennsylvania, there are two types of alimony:

  • Alimony pendente lite, or alimony preceding litigation, awarded by the court before it issues a divorce decree, or order.
  • Spousal support, awarded by the court as part of the divorce order, or after.

Pennsylvania law defines alimony pendente lite as an order for temporary support granted to a spouse during the pendency of a divorce or annulment proceeding. It is meant to equalize the position of the spouse earning a lower income before the divorce is final. Spousal support is defined as care, maintenance and financial assistance.

Pennsylvania statutes provide that the court may allow a spouse reasonable alimony pendente lite, spousal support and reasonable attorney fees and expenses. The court has authority to direct the higher-earning spouse to provide adequate health insurance for the dependent spouse before the divorce is final.

Effect of Conviction of Dependent Spouse

If a dependent spouse has been convicted of committing a personal injury crime like battery against the higher-earning spouse, the dependent spouse is not entitled to alimony pendente lite or spousal support.

Any amount of alimony pendente lite that the injured spouse pays the dependent spouse after the offense, but before a conviction, is recoverable by the injured party. The injured spouse must petition to recover the sum they paid.

Divorce Issues Heard in Family Court

The proper court in Pennsylvania for matters involving divorce, equitable distribution, child custody and protection from abuse is family court. The person seeking the divorce, the petitioner, should file the complaint for divorce in the county in which the couple resides.

Matters involving child support and spousal support are handled by the county’s domestic relations office. This office also handles the establishment of paternity.

How Divorce Attorneys Can Help

A spouse can represent themselves in a divorce proceeding or an action for spousal or child support. Pennsylvania courts provide self-help resources on state and county websites. Resources include forms, such as the divorce complaint and a Notice to Defend, as well as directions on how to serve the opposing party.

However, persons interested in getting divorced benefit from forming an attorney-client relationship. A family law attorney can offer legal advice and representation. Communications between the client and the attorney remain confidential.

Divorce and Custody Filing Fees

There is a fee to file for a divorce, which varies according to the county. For example, Delaware County charges $291.25 for a basic divorce with no additional counts. In a civil case, a “count” is a different claim.

The filing fee for a divorce goes up with each “count” of custody for a child. The filing fee for a divorce with one custody count is $339.15. The filing fee for a custody complaint alone is $299.75; the fee for a petition to modify custody is $128.

Help for Those Who Cannot Afford Filing Fees

If a person cannot afford the filing fee, they can complete an “In Forma Pauperis” (IFP) form and submit it to the records office at their county courthouse. The court may ask for the party’s income and expense statements. The court also may require the person to appear in person for a hearing.

Alternatively, the judge can decide whether the person qualifies to file the documents at no cost without a hearing.

Copies of Divorce Papers

A party can get copies of their divorce papers with the docket number, or tracking number, assigned to their case by the court. The individual should visit the court’s public access screen and proceed to the page for the civil docket.

There is a fee for divorce papers, which varies by county. In Delaware County, the cost of a simple copy is $1.00. The cost of a certified copy is $5.95.

Only parties to a divorce and their attorneys of record are allowed to see a divorce file. A person who wants to see any part of their file or copy any pages must come to the county’s Office of Judicial Support’s civil filing room with photo identification, such as a driver’s license.

Length of Archiving of Court File

A county office may keep files only for the current year and the five prior years in the office. If the file dates within the last five years, the individual can go to the office without a prior arrangement. But if the file was opened before that period, the person should call before requesting that the file be brought from archives.