Divorce is a complicated and emotional process that can be full of frustrating delays and unpleasant surprises. Having an understanding of what the divorce process is from beginning to end will help prepare you for the steps ahead and make a stressful process less burdensome. A skilled family law attorney will assist you with the important procedural requirements and deadlines plus guide you in making decisions and setting a strategy that meets your goals.
It is hard to say how long a divorce will take. The entire process can last from as little as a few months, to as long as two years or more. In general, a divorce will go smoother if parties can cooperate and reach compromises, with or without their counsel.
In order to file for divorce in Pennsylvania, you or your spouse must have resided in Pennsylvania for at least six (6) months prior to the filing of the Divorce Complaint. If you meet the 6-month requirement, typically you may then file within the county where you or your spouse reside.
Pennsylvania provides grounds for divorce which can be broken into two categories: a “no fault” divorce, and one based on the “fault” of a spouse. A lawyer can help you determine which option is best for you, but most cases proceed under a “no fault” divorce, even if one spouse has participated in behavior that would be the basis for a “fault” divorce.
To obtain a fault-based divorce, you will have to prove that your spouse is the culpable party. The fault grounds include: adultery, desertion, conviction of a crime, insanity, cruel and barbarous treatment, a prison sentence of two (2) or more years, and indignities intended to make the other spouse’s condition intolerable. Pennsylvania also permits fault divorces if one spouse is committed to a mental institution for at least eighteen (18) months prior to filing the Divorce Complaint, and there is not a likelihood of discharge for at least eighteen (18) more months.
Fault divorces require an evidentiary hearing and a formal finding by the court that the requisite elements of culpability have been demonstrated. Because fault-based divorces can be emotionally draining and have little impact on the economics of the case, most parties pursue a divorce under no-fault grounds.
A no-fault divorce is the more common divorce pursued in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, no-fault divorce can be granted in two situations: (a) where the parties mutually consent to the divorce or (b) where the court finds there has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage after a two year separation.
Where 90 days have passed since the date when the divorce action was commenced and the defendant served, and both parties consent to the divorce, the court will have a basis to dissolve the marriage. However, if other claims are pending, such as equitable distribution, those issues must generally be resolved first.
In the absence of mutual consent, you must have lived separately from your spouse for at least one year and the marriage must be irretrievably broken. Your date of separation is an important detail in all divorces but is of particular relevance when determining when you have reached your one year separation. For many (but not all) divorces, the spouses are considered separated when they no longer share a home or when one party has filed and served a divorce complaint.
Although the parties can begin negotiating a settlement involving their economic claims at any time during the divorce process, before the court can grant a divorce decree, the grounds for divorce (whether it be fault or no-fault grounds) must be established.
In Pennsylvania, when a couple is divorcing, the legal term for dividing marital assets and marital debts is “equitable distribution”. Our courts divide marital property and debts based on the principles of equity, which means that it is in the discretion of the court to divide marital assets and marital debts as it deems fair. Equitable distribution does not mean that property and debts must be equally divided. The goal is to achieve a fair and equitable result.
Pennsylvania courts consider a number of factors when determining equitable distribution including: the length of the marriage ,whether either spouse has been married previously, each spouse’s age, health, education, amount of income, and sources of income (including disability, retirement, insurance or other benefits), each spouse’s vocational skills and ability to be employed, the assets, debts, and needs of each spouse, any contributions by one spouse to the other’s education, training, or earning ability (e.g.,if one spouse provided financial support or cared for the couple’s children, so the other spouse could obtain an education), the future ability of each spouse to earn income and obtain assets, each spouse’s contribution to the acquisition of marital assets or to preserving or increasing the value of marital assets (including contributions as a homemaker), any reduction in the value of marital assets cause by either spouse, the amount/value of non-marital assets owned by each spouse, the standard of living the couple enjoyed during the marriage, the financial impact any proposed property division will have on each spouse (tax implications, and the expense of sale/transfer/liquidation of property), and whether either spouse will be the custodian of any dependent children under the age of 18.
One of the most important responsibilities of representing our clients in a divorce is to identify the client’s goals, discuss realistic expectations and give sound advice on settlement options and the likelihood of success in court. Each case is unique and divorce resolutions are not the same for each set of facts. Call us to discuss your circumstances and gain an understanding of what a divorce would likely look like for you and your family.