Domestic Relations Law in Pennsylvania
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How do I get a divorce in Pennsylvania?
In order to get a divorce from a Pennsylvania court, either you or your spouse must have resided in Pennsylvania for at least six months immediately before the divorce is started.
To start the divorce process, one spouse, called the “petitioner,” must file a “Petition for Divorce” in the Court of Common Pleas in the county where either the petitioner or the other spouse, the “defendant,” lives.
What are “grounds” for divorce in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania recognizes eight “grounds” or reasons for divorce. Seven of the grounds are “fault-based" grounds, meaning that the defendant has engaged in some sort of bad conduct. The fault-based grounds for divorce in Pennsylvania are:
- abandonment for at least one year
- extreme cruelty, like physical or mental abuse
- other extremely bad behavior, like alcoholism, which makes married life intolerable
- criminal conviction and imprisonment for two or more years, and
- institutionalization in a mental institution for at least 18 months.
Pennsylvania also recognizes the no-fault ground of “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage. This means that the couple can no longer get along and there is no reasonable possibility of them getting back together. If both spouses agree that the marriage has broken down irretrievably and file sworn statements stating they each want a divorce, the court will grant a divorce after a 90-day waiting period. If the defendant doesn’t agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken, a divorce will still be granted if the couple has been living separate for at least two years.
What issues are decided in a divorce?
During a divorce proceeding in Pennsylvania, a judge will terminate your marriage and can deal with other related issues, including:
- child custody
- child support
- spousal support (alimony), and
- property division.
If you and your spouse can decide how to deal with these issues yourselves, you can present an agreement to the judge and the judge will make your agreement part of the final “Decree of Divorce.” Coming to an agreement yourselves will usually save you time and money.
It also means that you won’t have to battle it out in court and can avoid airing your dirty laundry in public, which (depending on the issues in your case) could happen at trial. In a divorce trial, you, your spouse and other witnesses will testify in court. Then, after hearing testimony and seeing other evidence, the judge will decide what to do regarding child custody, child support, spousal support, and division of property.
How is child custody determined?
If you can’t agree on custody of your children, the judge will decide who should have custody based on “the best interests of the children.” To determine best interests, the court will consider many different factors, including:
- the age, gender, mental and physical health of the children
- the mental and physical health of the parents
- the emotional ties between the children and each parent
- the parent’s ability to provide food, shelter, and medical care to the children
- the children’s established living patterns (school, home, and community ties)
- the children’s preferences if they are 12 or above, and
- the ability and willingness of each parent to foster a healthy relationship between the children and the other parent.
What is child support and how is it determined?
Child support is money paid by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent to assist in meeting the needs of the children. Child support is meant to assist in the day-to-day costs of living of the child and pays for things like housing, food, clothing, electricity, medical care and school necessities.
Pennsylvania has “child support guidelines” that determine how much a noncustodial parent must contribute to child support each month. If you and your spouse can’t agree on an amount, the court will use the guidelines to determine how much child support is paid each month.
For more information about child support and how it's calculated in Pennsylvania, see Child Support in Pennsylvania.
What is alimony and how is it determined?
Alimony or “spousal support” is money paid by the higher-earning spouse to the lesser-earning spouse to compensate for the loss in living standard due to the divorce. In Pennsylvania, alimony is not automatic. The judge will only order alimony if it is necessary.
Some of the things a judge will consider to determine whether, how much, and for how long to award alimony include:
- the length of the marriage
- the age, employment history, earning ability, and physical and emotional condition of each spouse
- the division of the spouses’ marital property, and
- any marital misconduct.
For a complete overview of alimony, see Understanding and Calculating Alimony in Pennsylvania.
How is property divided?
Pennsylvania is an “equitable distribution” state in regards to dividing “marital property.” This means that the spouses’ marital property and debts should be divided fairly, but not necessarily equally. Marital property generally means all property acquired during the marriage and includes the increase in the value of any property which one spouse acquired before the marriage, by gift, or by inheritance, but not the property itself.
If you and your spouse can’t agree how to divide your property yourselves, the judge will decide. When dividing marital property, the judge will consider many factors, including:
- the number of children
- the spouses’ health, earning capacity, and education, and
- the spouses’ standard of living during the marriage.
For more on this topic, see Equitable Distribution in a Pennsylvania Divorce.
Do I need to hire an attorney?
The divorce process can be complicated, especially if you and your spouse don’t agree and have to go to trial. An attorney can help make sure you are legally protected and guide you through what will probably be a very stressful time of your life.
For the full text of the law regarding residency requirements and grounds for divorce in Pennsylvania, see 23 Pa.C.S.A. §§3301(a)-(3) and 3104.
For the full text of the laws regarding spousal support and alimony laws in Pennsylvania, see 23 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 3701, 3702, 3706, 3707, 4322 and 231 Pa. Code Rule 1910.16-1 and 16-4.
For the full text of the laws regarding distribution of property, see 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 3502 and 3701.