Pennsylvania Divorce Laws

If you live in Pennsylvania and are thinking about divorce, familiarizing yourself with Pennsylvania divorce law is an important first step. And if you’re considering representing yourself, it’s not just important . . . it’s crucial.

By , Retired Judge

If you're facing a divorce in Pennsylvania, it pays to do your homework. Whether you plan to hire a lawyer or get a do-it-yourself divorce, you're going to have to make some decisions, and you should know what to expect. So the more you can familiarize yourself with Pennsylvania divorce laws, the further ahead of the game you'll be.

Pennsylvania Laws on Qualifying for Divorce

There are two basic requirements to get a divorce in Pennsylvania: You have to meet the state's residency standards, and you need a legally accepted reason for ending your marriage.

Residency Requirement for a Pennsylvania Divorce

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 spouses 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).)

Grounds for Divorce in Pennsylvania

You must also have "grounds" for divorce, meaning a legally acceptable reason for ending the marriage. Pennsylvania has both "fault" and "no-fault" grounds. Fault grounds apply when you're accusing your spouse of wrongdoing, such as willful desertion, adultery, or cruelty that endangers the life or health of the injured and innocent spouse. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(a) (2022).)

No-fault grounds come into play when neither spouse is blaming the other for the breakdown of the marriage. There are two grounds for no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania:

  • Mutual consent. In order to use this ground, both spouses must agree that the marriage is "irretrievably broken," meaning they can't get along and there's no reasonable prospect of that changing. Each spouse has to file an Affidavit of Consent (a sworn statement) stating that they consent to the divorce. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(c) (2022).)
  • One year of separation. You typically see couples use this ground when one of the spouses doesn't want the divorce. The judge can grant a divorce based on this ground when the spouse initiating the divorce (the "plaintiff") claims that the marriage is irretrievably broken and files an affidavit stating that the spouses have lived separate and apart for at least a year, and the other spouse (the "defendant") doesn't deny the claims made in the affidavit. If the defendant denies any of the claims, a judge may still grant the divorce—but only after holding a hearing and determining that the plaintiff's claims are true. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(d) (2022).)

If you choose one of the fault-based grounds, there's a good possibility that your spouse will contest any claims of misconduct. So you're almost always better off filing for a no-fault divorce, in the interest of saving money (on attorney's fees) and additional anxiety.

How to File for Divorce in Pennsylvania

You'll begin the divorce process in Pennsylvania by filing a divorce "Complaint," a "Notice to Defend" (similar to a summons in other states), and other accompanying documents with the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas in the county where you're starting the divorce. The basic rule is that you should file in the county where your spouse lives.

However, you may file in your own Pennsylvania county when:

  • your spouse lives out of state
  • you've continued to live in the county where you and your spouse lived together as a married couple
  • it's been more than six months since the two of you permanently separated, or
  • your spouse has agreed that you could file the papers in your county.

And if you and your spouse agree in writing (and attach the agreement to your divorce complaint), you may file in any other Pennsylvania county (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3104(e); 231 Pa. Code Rule 1920.2 (2022).)

You must submit the documents to the office of the court clerk (known as the "Prothonotary" in most Pennsylvania counties). It's important to note that, in addition to the Complaint and Notice to Defend, each Pennsylvania county may have its own schedule of forms required to begin the divorce. So you should check with the Prothonotary's office in the county where you'll be filing to determine what you'll need.

The particular complaint form you'll use depends on whether your case is "uncontested" or "contested." For a case to be uncontested, you and your spouse must have agreed on all the divorce issues (more on that below). If there's disagreement on any issue, the court will consider the case to be contested. You can find the appropriate forms and a "how-to" divorce information on the Pennsylvania courts' divorce website.

The court requires that you file an original and two copies of your documents, but it's a good idea to make a couple of additional copies just in case. If you'd like, you can opt to file your documents electronically in counties where it's permitted.

The Cost of Filing for Divorce in Pennsylvania

When you're ready to file your case, be prepared to pay a divorce filing fee. Filing fees in Pennsylvania may vary from county to county. In most counties, the filing fees for divorce total between $200 and $300. Information on court filing fees is available from the county clerk's office.

If you can't afford to pay the filing fees, you can request a 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.

Overview of the Divorce Process in Pennsylvania

After you've filed your initial divorce papers, the process of getting a final divorce in Pennsylvania depends in large part on whether your case is contested or uncontested.

Uncontested Divorce in Pennsylvania

In an uncontested divorce, the spouses have agreed about all the issues involved in ending their marriage, including:

  • how they'll divide their marital property and debts
  • whether one spouse will pay alimony and if so, how much and for how long, and
  • if they have minor children together, their arrangements for child custody, visitation (parenting time), and child support.

Many couples attempt to settle any disputes before they file for divorce, often with the help of mediation. Successful mediation can lead to the preparation of a marital settlement agreement.

If you can reach an agreement at this stage, the rest of the divorce process will be relatively simple, and you can ask the judge to make it part of the divorce judgment. (Also, with an agreement, you may be able to use an online divorce service that will supply the correct forms and basically walk you through the process.)

Here are the basic steps for an uncontested divorce in Pennsylvania:

  • Serving the complaint. Once you file the paperwork, you'll need to give your spouse notice that you've started the legal divorce process by "serving" (delivering) copies of the divorce documents. If your spouse is in Pennsylvania, you must serve the divorce papers within 30 days after filing them with the court. (You'll have up to 90 days if you need to serve your spouse outside of Pennsylvania.) When you and your spouse are cooperating in an uncontested divorce, the easiest way to serve the documents is to have your spouse agree to get them from you directly and sign an Acceptance of Service. Otherwise, you can serve the papers by mailing them (both by regular mail and certified mail, return receipt requested) or by having an adult (who isn't involved in the case and isn't your relative or employee) hand-deliver them. (231 Pa. Code Rule 1930.4 (2022).) If you don't know where your spouse is, you can ask the court for permission to use other methods, such as publishing a notice in a newspaper.
  • File final paperwork. Once more than 90 days have passed since you served your spouse with the initial divorce papers, you'll need to file some final forms with the court, including both spouses' affidavits of consent (which must have been signed no more than 30 days before you file them) and, typically, waivers of notice. You should check with the Prothonotary's office to find out about other forms required in the county.
  • Finalizing your divorce. One of the benefits of an uncontested divorce in Pennsylvania is that you normally don't have to appear in court for the divorce to be finalized. Typically, a judge will review your paperwork and sign the final divorce decree, which you'll receive in the mail.

Contested Divorce in Pennsylvania

In a contested divorce, your spouse will file a response to your divorce complaint that disagrees with at least some parts of what you've stated or requested. Also, both of you will have to complete and file an Income Statement. This document requires you to provide a great deal of data about your income and assets. It's a good idea to gather as much of this information in advance as you can, because it's important that you be as thorough as possible in completing this form. It's imperative that you be honest, because you could face penalties (such as fines and possible jail time) if you knowingly fail to disclose all accounts, debts, or assets could face penalties.

Pennsylvania courts attempt to help couples resolve their disputes as their divorce case proceeds, and courts may require them to participate in mediation of certain issues. Most couples are able to reach agreement on the issues at some point during the divorce process (usually with the help of their lawyers, a mediator, or both). But if they don't, they'll have to go to trial to have a judge decide the issues for them.

Some disputes are more difficult to resolve than others. Without an agreement, Pennsylvania law will guide judges in their decisions on these issues:

  • Child support. This is usually the easiest issue to resolve, because Pennsylvania law provides formulas for calculating child support, which is generally based on the spouses' income and the amount of time a child will spend with each parent.
  • Child custody. Parents often find it more difficult to agree about custody and visitation, in part because these issues can be so emotionally charged. Settlement can be further complicated by any allegations—or documented history—of spousal or child abuse (domestic violence) by either parent. The bottom line is that Pennsylvania child custody laws require judges to make sure that custody agreements and orders are in the best interests of the children. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5328(a) (2022).)
  • Property and debts. Pennsylvania law requires an "equitable division" of marital property and debts. That means that the judge will decide what's fair under the circumstances of your case. Unlike what you'd see in a "community property" state like California, equitable distribution doesn't necessarily result in a 50-50 split. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3502(a) (2022).)
  • Alimony. There's nothing automatic about alimony in a Pennsylvania divorce. In fact, Pennsylvania law states that judges should award alimony only if they determine that it's necessary. In deciding whether alimony should be awarded, and in what amount, a judge will look at a number of factors, such as the length of the marriage, the spouses' ages and mental and physical health, and the standard of living during the marriage. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701 (2022).)

Note that although custody and child support issues can be raised separately from divorce, if you don't specifically address alimony and equitable distribution in the divorce complaint, you may be barred from raising these topics at a later date.

Contested divorces tend to be very expensive. (Think legal fees.) The cost of divorce climbs as cases drag on without a settlement—and the bills are highest for couples who need a trial to resolve their issues.

How Long Does a Divorce Take in Pennsylvania?

The timeframe for getting a divorce in Pennsylvania will largely depend on whether it's contested or uncontested. An uncontested divorce will almost always take less time than a contested one, because the spouses have resolved all their issues, so there's nothing left to fight about.

  • Uncontested divorces take the least amount of time. Pennsylvania law requires a 90-day waiting period before the judge may grant a final divorce by mutual consent. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3301(c) (2022).) But it usually takes a while longer than that, depending to some degree on the court caseload in the county where you filed the complaint.
  • Contested divorces typically take much longer, possibly a year or more, based on the complexity of the case, how long it takes the couple to try to work out a settlement, and whether they have to go to trial.

Should You Represent Yourself in a Pennsylvania Divorce?

You certainly have the right to represent yourself in your divorce. (If you do so in Pennsylvania, you'll have to file a Self-represented Party Notice of Appearance.) But whether you should represent yourself is a different matter. Self-representation (known as appearing "pro se") is most practical when you have an uncontested case, or you have no minor or dependent children and very few assets. But in situations where you have custody disputes or a significant amount of property, you might be better off retaining an attorney—or at least using a mediator with expertise in the issues you're facing. Divorce laws can be quite complicated. A qualified divorce lawyer will know the intricacies of the law, as well as the ins-and-outs of the court system.

Remember, you're likely going to have to live with the results of your case well after the divorce is over. If, down the road, you realize you made a mistake, there's no guarantee you'll be able to correct it. So it pays to get it right the first time.

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