Getting a divorce case started can be tricky, especially for those with no experience in the Pennsylvania court system. This article covers the basics of how to file for divorce in Pennsylvania.
A “complaint” is the document that begins the divorce process. The spouse who starts the divorce by completing the complaint is the “plaintiff.” The other spouse is the “defendant.”
You or your spouse must meet Pennsylvania residency requirements before you can obtain a divorce in the state. Specifically, Pennsylvania law requires one spouse to live in the state for at least six months before filing for divorce. Once you’ve met Pennsylvania’s residency requirements, you can file for divorce on one of three grounds:
Fault-based divorces must be brought on certain grounds, such as willful desertion, adultery, bigamy, or extreme cruelty. Fault divorces are very rare in Pennsylvania, since the process for obtaining a mutual consent divorce or divorce based on separation are usually faster and less expensive than pursuing a fault divorce. However, marital fault, such as one spouse’s adultery, may impact an alimony award or property division in your divorce.
If both spouses agree that their marriage cannot be saved, they can proceed with a divorce by mutual consent. After the complaint is filed, the couple must wait 90 days to finalize the divorce. Each spouse writes a statement that says the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” or cannot be saved. This process is also called a no-fault divorce.
What if one spouse wants the divorce, but the other doesn’t? In that case the spouse who wants to divorce (the plaintiff) can proceed without the other person’s consent as long as the couple has lived apart for at least two years prior to the filing of divorce complaint. Just as in the mutual consent divorce, the plaintiff spouse states that the marriage is irretrievably broken and the couple cannot reconcile. See 23 P.A. Consol. Stat. § 3301 (2019).
The Court of Common Pleas for each county handles family law cases. You can file for divorce in the county where the plaintiff or the defendant spouse resides.
At the time you file your divorce complaint and summons, you must pay a court fee to file (submit) the divorce complaint with the court. If you can't afford the fee, you may complete a Petition to Proceed In Forma Pauperis, which asks to waive the fees.
Additional divorce forms and information about fee waivers are available in the Self-Help section of Pennsylvania’s Unified Court System website.
Once you’ve filed for divorce, you’ll need to serve your spouse with the divorce papers. Pennsylvania has rules for proper service, meaning that you cannot simply hand your spouse divorce papers unless he or she agrees to accept service.
In most cases, you will need to hire a sheriff or process server to hand-deliver the summons and divorce complaint to your spouse. Once your spouse has been served, your divorce case can proceed.
Some couples are able to resolve their cases quickly and easily through divorce mediation or by reaching a settlement agreement. Other cases with complex issues or where the spouses can’t reach a resolution on custody or property division, might need to proceed to trial.
If you receive a complaint for divorce, you must respond quickly or your spouse could obtain a default divorce against you. In your Answer (response), you should respond to all your spouse’s allegations and ask the judge for the specific outcomes you want, such as orders for child custody, child support, alimony, property division, and/or attorney’s fees. Before you file your answer, you may want to consult or hire a divorce attorney for advice.
Pennsylvania Legal Services website has a number of brochures, videos, and sample forms to guide the self-represented person through the divorce process. Pennsylvania Legal Aid provides additional legal help to low-income individuals who qualify for services.
For more information or to see if you qualify for services, you can contact Pennsylvania Legal Aid at (717) 236-9486.