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Pennsylvania Divorce Rules and Timelines

10 min read
Rachael Goldstein, Attorney

by Rachael Goldstein, Attorney

In Pennsylvania, the time it takes to finalize a divorce can vary based on the circumstances. Most important is whether both spouses are in agreement regarding their split. 

A mandated 90-day waiting period is applied for divorces that both parties consent to. However, when facing a scenario where one spouse is not in agreement to dissolve the marriage or you’re filing under different grounds than mutual consent, you’re looking at a longer timeline – usually one year from the date of separation.

Divorce Process in Pennsylvania

Dealing with a divorce in Pennsylvania can be an emotionally taxing process, and it demands an understanding of complex procedural steps.

The steps outlined here provide a basic framework for understanding the state’s divorce process. However, it’s important to recognize that more intricate cases – especially those involving custody disputes, significant assets or properties, and complicated financial arrangements – may warrant the expertise of an attorney. 

Step 1 – File the Complaint

You or your lawyer will begin by filing a “Complaint” for your divorce case. This document should be accompanied by the Notice to Defend and Claim Rights.

Once completed, make two copies, and take these and the originals to the office designated for legal filings located within the county you’re pursuing your divorce.

Step 2 – Serve Your Spouse

The next step after filing involves serving the papers on your spouse. This can be completed via regular or certified mail with return receipt requested or another adult who isn’t related to you or serving as your employee may hand-deliver these documents directly to your spouse.

If Both Spouses Agree to Divorce (Proceed to 3301(c)(1) Divorce):

Step 3 – Waiting Period and Affidavit of Consent

Following service on your spouse, a period of at least 90 days must be observed. Once this waiting period has concluded and both parties are in agreement about proceeding with the divorce, each may file an “Affidavit of Consent.”

This Affidavit of Consent signifies that both parties voluntarily agree to the divorce, and it must be filed within 30 days after signing and dating. 

Step 3b – Waiver of Notice or Notice of Intention to File

Additional documents can be filed at this point as well. If both parties want a quicker resolution and are in agreement, signing a “Waiver of Notice” permits the divorce case to be moved immediately to a judge for finalization. 

Alternatively, if one party sends out a “Notice of Intention to File the Praecipe to Transmit Record Under Section 3301(c)(1) of the Divorce Code,” they must wait 20 days before proceeding.

Step 4 – Completion of Required Forms and Submission to Court

With the Affidavits of Consent from both spouses filed and after the receipt of a Notice of Intention or a Waiver of Notice by both spouses, either spouse then may submit a “Final Praecipe to Transmit Record” along with any additional forms the county requires.

A Proposed Divorce Decree must also be included among these documents, and you must provide self-addressed stamped envelopes for you and your spouse so that once finalized, the court can send each party their respective copy.

Step 5 – Issuance of Divorce Decree

Upon successful filing of all necessary forms and documents, the divorce decree will be processed and mailed to both parties – assuming no errors are present in the paperwork. If revisions are required, the finalization of your divorce can only proceed after proper corrections have been made.

If your spouse does not agree to the divorce, there are some other steps that must be taken.

If Spouses Contest Their Divorce:

Waiting Period 

In the case of a non-consent, no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania, you’ll typically need to spend at least one year living separate and apart from your spouse to file your complaint.

If you and your spouse have already met the requirement of living separately and apart for one year before filing the divorce complaint, this separation time counts toward fulfilling Pennsylvania’s waiting period. 

In such cases, the divorce can move forward without delay after filing and serving the Notice to Defend and the Divorce Complaint. 

Filing an Affidavit of Separation and Complete Service

After living apart for the required time period, either party can file an “Affidavit Under Section 3301(d) of the Divorce Code,” attesting to this separation.

You are also obligated to serve the other spouse, providing them an opportunity to object or raise additional claims.

If there’s no opposition and they choose not to file a Counter-Affidavit, then you may continue with filing the Praecipe to Transmit Record, leading to the issuance of your divorce decree.

File Praecipe to Transmit Record, Divorce Decree, and Other Required Forms

With the correct service of all necessary documents, you or your spouse can complete the divorce by filing a Praecipe to Transmit Record

Along with the Praecipe to Transmit Record, you will need to submit additional documentation required by the court, which typically includes a proposed Divorce Decree. You must also supply self-addressed stamped envelopes for both you and your spouse so that upon completion of the proceedings, copies of the final Divorce Decree can be mailed out.

Pennsylvania Residency Requirements for Divorce 

To file for divorce in Pennsylvania, at least one spouse must have lived in the state for at least six months. Additionally, the divorce paperwork must be submitted to the appropriate county court – which is usually the county where the respondent lives.

If the respondent lives outside of Pennsylvania, then the divorce can be filed in the county where the plaintiff (the person filing for divorce) currently resides. Alternatively, divorce can be filed in a different county if both parties agree. 

Approximate Cost to File for Divorce in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, expect to pay a filing fee of approximately $300 to $400 when initiating a divorce. The exact cost will depend on the county in which your divorce is filed.

For service of papers, you might need to employ a process server whose fees contribute to these costs too.

Additional costs may also come into play, such as those for legal representation throughout the process. Hiring an attorney constitutes the most significant expense associated with getting divorced, but sometimes it’s necessary. 

Full legal representation isn’t always necessary, though; there’s an option available known as “unbundled” legal services where you can hire a lawyer for specific tasks instead of the entire process. For example, you could have a lawyer help you figure out what grounds you should file your divorce under. This will reduce your overall costs tremendously without sacrificing the legal guidance that you need. 

Reasons for Divorce in Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania law, divorce can be pursued on the basis of fault or no-fault grounds.

Fault-Based Divorces

Fault-based divorces involve one spouse alleging that the there party did something wrong to cause the divorce. These grounds include adultery, desertion without cause for a full year, and cruelty. Other fault-based reasons include bigamy, a conviction of your spouse that leads to more than 2 years in jail, and being subjected to “indignities” that make life “intolerable” and “burdensome.”

Opting for a fault-based divorce in Pennsylvania often presents challenges, heightening stress, drawing out the process, and increasing legal costs due to the intricacies of proving fault. 

There typically aren’t significant benefits to proceeding this way. However, when judges consider alimony awards, they MIGHT consider misconduct, like adultery (among other factors), when determining financial arrangements.

No-Fault Divorces

A no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania signifies that neither spouse is being blamed for the breakdown of their marriage. This approach is preferred by a majority of divorcing couples due to its relative simplicity compared to fault divorces.

Even though opting for a no-fault ground streamlines matters, it doesn’t automatically mean your case will be uncontested. To truly benefit from an uncontested divorce – saving both time and money – you and your spouse need complete agreement on all related matters such as alimony, property division, child custody, and support. Pennyslvania’s options for no-fault divorces include:

  • No-Fault Divorce Based on Mutual Consent
    • A mutual consent no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania allows a quick resolution when both spouses agree that there’s no chance for reconciliation and the marriage cannot be salvaged. In these cases, there is a waiting period of 90 days after filing before the divorce can move forward.
  • No-Fault Divorce After One-Year Separation
    • In cases where one spouse is not amenable to the divorce, Pennsylvania law permits a judge to grant a non-consensual, no-fault divorce after evidence showing at least one year of separation.
  • No-Fault Divorce Based on a Spouse’s Psychiatric Institutionalization
    • This type of no-fault divorce occurs when a spouse has been institutionalized for mental health reasons for 18 continuous months, with the expectation that discharge isn’t likely in the subsequent 18 months following initiation of divorce proceedings.

Division of Property in Pennsylvania Divorces

In Pennsylvania, the division of property in a divorce adheres to an equitable distribution model rather than community property principles. Courts consider various factors for dividing assets fairly. Below are some they may take into account:

  • How long the marriage lasted
  • How old each party is
  • The health of each party 
  • Income of both parties
  • Non-marital assets each party has
  • The existence of a prenuptial agreement
  • Who will have primary custody of children, if applicable 
  • Whether either party helped the advancement of the other’s career and earning power
  • The standard of living during the marriage 
  • The employability of each party 

Simply put, marital assets and debts are divided by whatever method the court deems fair. This is not necessarily an equal split. 

Alimony Considerations in Pennsylvania

Alimony in Pennsylvania is meant to meet a spouse’s reasonable needs that cannot be satisfied through marital property division, especially when one doesn’t have sufficient skills or opportunities for employment. It’s intended as a means of financial support, not as a measure for penalizing or rewarding either spouse. 

When it comes to calculating alimony in Pennsylvania, judges are afforded broad discretion. There’s no strict formula; instead, they make case-by-case decisions about whether alimony is warranted, the amount to be paid, and for what duration.

Pennsylvania law outlines 17 factors for judges to consider when assessing alimony, which include the length of the marriage, each spouse’s earnings and earning potential, in addition to standard of living during the marriage.

Child Custody in Pennsylvania Divorces

Child custody orders encompass both physical and legal aspects of caring for a child. Physical custody refers to where the child lives, while legal custody pertains to who makes significant decisions about the child’s welfare. If parents are able to agree on arrangements amicably, they can establish a childcare plan without going to court. 

However, if an agreement cannot be reached, court intervention will be required. In these cases, a judge will make the final determination on shared or sole custody.

Pennsylvania law also includes factors to judge the suitability of relocation, and potential penalties for parents who would violate child custody orders.

Divorce is a profound life transition, and the duration as well as the complexity can become overwhelming. In these situations, knowledgeable legal support can be helpful to guide you through this challenging time.

However, remember that full representation isn’t always necessary. You can choose which specific aspects of your case you need help with when enlisting professional support.

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