Grounds for Divorce in Pennsylvania

Learn about the legally acceptable reasons for getting a divorce in Pennsylvania.

By , Retired Judge | Updated by Joseph Pandolfi, Retired Judge

When you file for divorce in Pennsylvania, you must state the legal reason (or "ground") for your request to end the marriage. Pennsylvania recognizes both fault and no-fault grounds for divorce. Your choice between a fault and no-fault divorce can make a big difference in how your case plays out.

Fault Divorce in Pennsylvania

In a "fault" divorce, one spouse accuses the other of engaging in some type of misconduct that led to the divorce. You must prove fault in court with admissible evidence, such as emails, photos, videos, and/or witness testimony. The fault grounds in Pennsylvania include:

  • adultery
  • desertion without cause for at least one year
  • cruelty, including domestic violence, which endangered the life or health of the injured and innocent spouse
  • bigamy (getting married while legally married to someone else)
  • conviction of a crime and being sentenced to at least two years in prison, and
  • subjecting your spouse to "indignities" that make life "intolerable" and "burdensome."

(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(a) (2022).)

There's usually little to no benefit in choosing a fault-based divorce in Pennsylvania. Having to prove fault invariably increases stress levels and tends to prolong the divorce process. This, in turn, leads to mounting attorneys' fees. There's also the prospect of having to bring witnesses into court to help prove your claim, which can be a major inconvenience to family and friends.

However, there's one scenario in which fault might make a difference. When deciding whether to award alimony, judges may consider marital misconduct like adultery. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701(b)(14) (2022).) But wrongdoing is only one of many factors a judge will look at. So you'd be wise to consult with a local divorce lawyer to learn whether using a fault-based ground for divorce would be worth it under the circumstances of your case.

No-Fault Divorce in Pennsylvania

In a no-fault case, neither spouse accuses the other of causing the divorce. Most divorcing couples in Pennsylvania choose this option.

Even though a no-fault divorce is generally easier than a fault divorce, choosing a no-fault ground doesn't necessarily mean your case will be uncontested. If you want the time- and cost-saving advantages of filing for an uncontested divorce in Pennsylvania, you and your spouse will have to agree about all of the issues in your case, including alimony (spousal support), division of property and debt, child custody, and child support. When any of these are unresolved at the time you file your divorce papers, your case will proceed as a contested divorce. (Because of the time, expense, and anxiety associated with contested divorces, many couples turn to mediation as a means of settling their differences.)

Pennsylvania divorce law provides three possible grounds for no-fault divorce.

No-Fault Divorce Based on Mutual Consent

The quickest route to a no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania is known as a "mutual consent" divorce—when both spouses agree that the marriage is "irretrievably broken." That simply means the couple can't get along anymore, and their marriage is damaged beyond repair.

To get a mutual consent divorce in Pennsylvania, you must meet all of the following requirements:

  • both spouses acknowledge that the marriage is irretrievably broken
  • each spouse has filed an affidavit (sworn written statement) with the court consenting to the divorce, and
  • at least 90 days have passed since the divorce complaint (the document that begins the divorce) was filed.

(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(c) (2022).)

No-Fault Divorce After One-Year Separation

The process for no-fault divorce gets a bit more complicated—and lengthy—when one spouse doesn't want to end the marriage. A judge may still grant the divorce, but only after finding that all the following conditions have been met:

  • the divorce complaint states that the marriage is irretrievably broken
  • the spouse seeking the divorce has filed an affidavit stating that they've lived separate and apart from the other spouse for at least one year, and that the marriage is irretrievably broken, and
  • either the other spouse doesn't deny the assertions in the affidavit or a judge determines (after a court hearing) that those assertions are true.

(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(d) (2022).)

No-Fault Divorce Based on a Spouse's Psychiatric Institutionalization

This no-fault ground applies in the narrow circumstances when one spouse has been confined to a psychiatric institution for at least 18 months immediately before the start of the divorce, and there's no reasonable prospect that the spouse will be discharged from inpatient care during the 18 months after the start of the divorce. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(b) (2022).)

A Word About Annulment in Pennsylvania

In certain instances, a spouse might have legal grounds for annulment of a marriage in Pennsylvania. An annulment may be warranted when the circumstances surrounding the marriage make it "void" (strictly prohibited) or "voidable" (prohibited, but possibly salvageable). (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3303(a) (2022).)

One example of a void marriage would be when the spouses are close enough relatives that the state prohibits marriage between them. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3304 (a)(2) (2022).) In these cases, you couldn't file for divorce because the marriage wasn't valid to begin with. Legally, it's as if the marriage never happened. So your only recourse is to file for annulment.

An example of a voidable marriage is when either spouse was under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the couple got marriage, and the person who was incapacitated files for annulment within 60 days after the wedding ceremony. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3305(a)(3) (2022).) If you want to get out of the marriage but you don't file for annulment within the permitted time period, you're out of luck. You'd need to file for divorce to end the marriage.

Pennsylvania law considers a voidable marriage valid until a court order says otherwise. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3305(b) (2022).)

The law on annulments can be quite complex, so consider consulting a local divorce lawyer before taking any action.

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