Every state has its own rules and procedures for filing a divorce. Here's what you need to know to get started with your Pennsylvania divorce (also called a "dissolution of marital status").
You must meet a state's residency requirements before you can file for divorce in its courts. To get a divorce in Pennsylvania, at least one of the parties must have been a resident of the state for at least six months immediately before filing the divorce case. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3104(b) (2022).)
You can file your divorce case in the county:
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3104(e) (2022).)
Pennsylvania allows both "no-fault" and "fault-based" divorces. A no-fault divorce is one in which the court doesn't require either spouse to prove that the other's bad acts were the cause of the divorce. In a fault-based divorce, one or both of the spouses must show that the other's actions caused (were "grounds for") the failure of the marriage.
No-fault divorces in Pennsylvania reach resolution faster than fault-based divorces because the spouses don't have to argue about or prove who was responsible for the divorce. Pennsylvania courts will grant a no-fault divorce when there's one of the two following situations:
In a fault-based divorce, one or both spouses will have to present evidence to the judge that proves the spouse committed acts that meet one of Pennsylvania's fault-based grounds for divorce. Pennsylvania judges grant fault-based divorces to "innocent and injured spouses" when the other spouse has:
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(a) (2022).)
Generally, there are two types of divorce—uncontested and contested. An uncontested divorce is one where the spouses agree on all divorce-related matters, such as division of property, child custody, and alimony (spousal support). A contested divorce, on the other hand, is one where the spouses disagree on at least one topic and must ask a court to decide the issues in their divorce.
Uncontested divorces usually reach resolution faster and are less expensive than contested divorces because there's no fighting in court. Instead, the judge needs only to review and approve the spouses' marital settlement agreement and issue a divorce decree.
To get a divorce in Pennsylvania, you'll need to file your divorce paperwork in a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas.
When you and your spouse have agreed on the issues in your divorce, the next step in getting an uncontested divorce in Pennsylvania is to file the required paperwork with the county's Prothonotary Office (court clerk). Usually, you must file in the county where your spouse resides. However, you may file in the county where you live if any of the following situations applies:
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3104(e) (2022).)
Each court in Pennsylvania has its own procedures and might have its own forms—you can search for the county's forms and procedures on the Pennsylvania courts' divorce website. In most courts, though, you'll need to file a Complaint accompanied by a Notice to Defend. A Notice to Defend is similar to a summons in other states—it's a document tells your spouse that you've filed for divorce.
If you plan to represent yourself in your divorce (meaning you won't be hiring a lawyer), you'll also need to file an Entry of Appearance of Self-Represented Party Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. No. 1930.8) (which might instead be called a Praecipe for Pro Se Entry of Appearance). The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers a detailed Divorce Packet that includes the forms you'll need and instructions. (The packet is also helpful for those who haven't experienced domestic violence.)
Bring the original and two copies to the Prothonotary's Office for filing to begin your divorce. There is a 90-day waiting period before the court can finalize your divorce.
A contested divorce begins when one of the spouses files a complaint for divorce with the court. Each court in Pennsylvania has its own procedures and might have its own forms—you can search for your county's forms and procedures on the Pennsylvania courts' divorce website.
After your spouse responds to the complaint, the court might order your case to be handled by a divorce master—an experienced, court-appointed lawyer who will hold hearings on the matters that the spouses can't agree on. After all the hearings, the divorce master makes a written recommendation to the judge about the disputed issues. The spouses will have a chance to formally disagree with the master's recommendations, but if no one files any disagreements, the judge will (in most cases) approve the master's recommendations and enter a final divorce decree. If a divorce master isn't appointed or isn't able to make recommendations, the judge in the case will decide the issues through hearings or a trial.
Along with filing the right paperwork, you'll have to pay court filing fees to begin your divorce. Filing fees in Pennsylvania vary from county to county, so you'll need to contact the Prothonotary's office to find out the fees at the court where you plan to file. In most counties, the filing fees for divorce total between $200 and $300.
If you can't afford to pay the filing fees, you can ask the judge to waive the fees. You can request a fee waiver by filing a Petition to Proceed In Forma Pauperis. If the court grants your request to waive fees, you won't have to pay any court costs during your divorce.
Once you file the paperwork, you will need to provide notice to your spouse of the divorce by "serving" (delivering) copies of what was filed with the court. If your spouse lives in Pennsylvania, you must serve the divorce papers within 30 days of filing the complaint. If your spouse doesn't live in Pennsylvania, you must serve the divorce papers within 90 days of filing the complaint. You can serve your spouse using one of the following methods:
If you're working with an attorney, your attorney will assess your situation and fill out, file, and serve all the necessary forms. Many divorcing couples can't afford to hire an attorney to handle their entire case, but would like some assistance with completing and filing their forms. If this describes your situation, consider using an online divorce service or finding an attorney who will consult with you on an as-needed basis. Low-income individuals might qualify for reduced-fee or free legal aid.