Pennsylvania allows couples to divorce for both fault-based reasons (for example, one spouse committed adultery) and no-fault grounds (the couple has irreconcilable differences). An annulment is different from a divorce, however: An annulment doesn't end a marriage, but instead declares that it never existed in the first place.
Below, we explain the legal grounds for divorce or annulment in Pennsylvania. For more information and resources on Pennsylvania family law, see our Pennsylvania Divorce and Family Law page.
Are You Married?
There must be a marriage before there can be a divorce or an annulment. Most couples get a marriage license and then formally wed in a civil or religious ceremony. However, Pennsylvania also recognizes certain common law marriages. A common law marriage is a marriage entered into by the parties informally, without a ceremony or license. The couple must exchange "words of the present intent" indicating their desire to be married and hold themselves out in the community as married. Common law marriage is no longer allowed in Pennsylvania, but the state still recognizes common law marriages entered into before 2005. A valid common-law marriage may end only through the divorce process.
Residency Requirements for Obtaining a Pennsylvania Divorce
A threshold requirement for obtaining a divorce is that one or both spouse must have a residence or domicile in the state. "Residency" refers to the state in which a person actually lives; "domicile" refers to the state that the person regards as "home." Usually the state of a person's residency and domicile are the same, but sometimes they can be different. For example, someone who maintains a permanent residence in Pennsylvania, votes in Pennsylvania, and has a Pennsylvania driver's license would most likely have a Pennsylvania domicile, even if he or she was transferred out of state for several months for military service or by an employer.
A divorce can be commenced in Pennsylvania if at least one of the spouses has been a "bona fide resident" of Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to the filing of the divorce complaint. "Bona fide resident" means actual residence coupled with the intent to remain there permanently or indefinitely.
Grounds for Divorce in Pennsylvania
The party seeking a divorce must state a ground (basis or reason) for divorce in the papers filed with the court, called the Divorce Complaint. The grounds may be based on no-fault or fault. Over time, "no-fault" has replaced "fault" as the more common basis for obtaining a divorce. No-fault divorces are considered a more humane and realistic way to end a marriage. Husbands and wives who are splitting up usually are suffering enough without adding more fuel to the emotional fires by trying to prove who did what to whom. The laws of no-fault divorce recognize that human relationships are complex and that it is difficult to prove that a marriage broke down solely because of what one person did. A no-fault divorce is a divorce in which neither the wife nor the husband blames the other for breakdown of the marriage. There are no accusations necessary to obtain a divorce and no need to prove "guilt" or "fault".
Fault-Based Grounds for Divorce
In Pennsylvania, spouses still can be divorced under fault-based grounds. Fault-based divorces are awarded to the "innocent and injured spouse" when the other spouse has willfully deserted the marriage for a period greater than one year, committed adultery, endangered the life or health of the other spouse, entered into a bigamous marriage, been sentenced to prison for two of more years, or "offered such indignities to the innocent and injured spouse as to render that spouse's condition intolerable and life burdensome." However, as stated above, it is often expensive and painful to proceed in this emotionally charged manner. Instead, most divorcing couples proceed under no-fault grounds.
No-Fault Grounds for Divorce
Under Pennsylvania's no-fault method, a divorce decree can be processed as soon as 90 days after the filing and service upon the other spouse of a divorce complaint if both spouses consent to the entry of the decree. If one spouse fails to consent to the entry of the decree, a no-fault decree can be entered if the marriage is irretrievably broken and the spouses have been separated for at least two years.
With regard to the date of separation, be advised that there is no such thing as a legal separation in Pennsylvania. In fact, in some circumstances, spouses can be separated even if they continue to reside in the same household.
What is a Divorce Decree?
A divorce decree is an order of court declaring the end of a marriage. The divorce decree allows either spouse to remarry or leave his or her estate upon death to the person of their choosing. While the decree itself may not necessarily be the most import aspect of a divorce case, the issues of equitable distribution or property and alimony cannot be resolved except in conjunction with obtaining the divorce decree.
Legal Annulments in Pennsylvania
Occasionally, people who live as a married couple learn that their marriage is not valid or legal. In this situation, a court may grant a legal annulment instead of a divorce. An annulment is a legal declaration that a valid marriage never existed. This differs from a divorce, which declares a valid marriage is over.
In Pennsylvania, a marriage might be invalid because one spouse had an existing spouse at the time of the marriage, the spouses are blood relatives within a certain degree, or one spouse could not consent because of a mental defect or other related reason. Other marriages may be declared void by Pennsylvania courts, and an annulment granted if requested by one of the parties. In Pennsylvania, voidable marriages arise when the spouses are less than sixteen years of age and lack the consent of a parent or the court to marry, either spouse was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, either spouse was at the time of the marriage incurably impotent, or either spouse entered into the marriage as a result of fraud, duress, coercion, or force. Marriage is a contract: If either spouse was unable to enter into the contract, the court may determine that no contract of marriage ever existed.
An annulment granted through a church or religious-based entity is not the same as a legal annulment. Only a legal annulment or divorce gives the parties the right to remarry. A religious-based annulment gives the parties the right to remarry through their religious organization. A party in a religious-based annulment is not represented by a lawyer, but is often counseled through the process by a priest, minister, or rabbi.