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pennsylvania divorce laws

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Pennsylvania Divorce Laws

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Divorce is a time-consuming and complex process that involves sensitive personal matters and intense financial consideration. It’s challenging dissolving a marriage, given the high emotions and complex family dynamics. And once you involve children or complicated asset division, there’s the potential for more back-and-forth disputes, which can raise your blood pressure and attorney fees. Understanding the basic process of filing for divorce and the type of divorce you’re seeking is a constructive place to start when considering making a separation permanent. 

How to File for Divorce in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, there are three categories of divorce: divorce by mutual consent, uncontested, and fault-based. Depending on your situation, the court can grant a no-fault (mutual consent) divorce in as little as 90 days after the requisite waiting period. However, the process is more complicated if your spouse doesn’t agree to the divorce or if there are legal grounds for a fault-based divorce. The following steps are basic guidelines for filing for divorce in Pennsylvania. For more detailed information regarding more complex divorce claims, go here.

Establish Residency & Separation Eligibility

The first step in filing for divorce is establishing that you meet Pennsylvania’s residency requirement. To start a divorce, one or both parties must have lived in the state for at least the past six months. If neither of you meets the residency requirement, you must wait until the six months have passed to begin. 

According to Pennsylvania law, a couple must be separated for a year to be eligible to file for divorce. There are a few different ways to establish the trial separation requirement has been fulfilled. The most direct way is to demonstrate to the court that you and your spouse have been living at different residences. If the couple proves to the court that they have lived separate lives for at least one year, they can be considered separated even if they share the same home.. If it’s been less than a year since you and your spouse separated, you can still file for divorce under a fault divorce, which allows the plaintiff to get a divorce if they can prove the other spouse is at fault. If both spouses were at fault, the court might refuse to grant the divorce until after the one-year waiting period. 

File a Notice to Defend and Divorce Complaint

A divorce case is officially started with the filing of a complaint. In a mutual consent divorce, the filing party only has to establish grounds, such as “irretrievably broken,” to end the marriage. If you’re filing for an at-fault divorce or unconsented, then you’ll have to provide additional proof as to the dissolution of the marriage. Two forms must be attached to the complaint: Notice to Defend and Claim Rights and the Verification. It’s important to list all proposed agreements for alimony, property division, and lawyers’ expenses in the Notice to Defend and Divorce Complaint. Otherwise, you might lose the right to make such claims when the decree is entered. 

Additionally, you’ll need to submit a signed and notarized verification, a document that attests to the authenticity of the divorce complaint.  The filing party will need to pay the clerk’s office a filing fee to submit the complaint officially. To apply for a fee waiver, go here

Serve the Papers 

Once you’ve filed the forms, the next step is to share the documents with your spouse or domestic partner through a specific process called serving papers. The case can’t move forward until the other person has received a copy of the complaint. These documents must be served on the other party within thirty (30) days of the date they were filed. If the responding party doesn’t live in Pennsylvania, the time requirement is extended to ninety (90) days. 

There are three ways to serve the other party. The first is through personal service, where an adult not involved in the divorce case serves the papers. In many cases, you can pay a small fee to the local sheriff’s office or a licensed process server who will serve the papers for you. The complaint can also be completed through Service by Mail as long as you submit an Affidavit of Service by Certified Mail. Attach the original green card receipt received from the post office to the forms and make a copy for your records. Lastly, you can submit an Acceptance of Service where the filing party gives the other party notice directly. 

Regardless of how the papers are served, you’ll need to complete and file an Affidavit of Service with the court. During the service waiting period, your spouse may file an answer to the complaint, which generally contests or validates the facts of the original complaint. Depending on the responding party’s answer, you may have to renegotiate the terms of the proposed agreement or continue to the final step in the divorce process. 

If you have trouble completing service, you can file a Praecipe to Reinstate the Complaint as often as you need. However, if you continue to have problems completing service, speak to an attorney about your next steps. You can’t proceed with the complaint until proper service has been made. 

Negotiate a Settlement Agreement

In Pennsylvania, the responding party has ninety days to agree to the terms of the complaint or contest the divorce. If no response is received, you may be able to proceed with the uncontested divorce. However, if your spouse chooses to contest the agreement, you’ll have to attend a series of court appearances to sort out the remaining issues. 

Ideally, you and your ex would negotiate and create a settlement agreement before filing official papers with the court, but sometimes negotiation is only viable after attaining an attorney. No matter at what stage a settlement agreement occurs, it’s important for people to disclose accurate and up-to-date financial information with their spouse & begin establishing a solid co-parenting relationship. To finish a divorce, you’ll need to determine how to divide property and debts, if anyone will pay spousal support, and how you will support your children. The fastest way is to work with your spouse to reach an agreement. You can do this over the phone or email or get help from a mediator. 

File a Notice of Intention to File Praecipe to Transmit Record

Once you reach an agreement with your soon-to-be-ex, file a Notice of Intention to File Praecipe to Transmit Records, which asks the court to enter an order approving grounds for divorce. Unless you’ve already filed a written claim for economic relief with the court, you must do so by the time you file the Notice of Intention to protect any economic claims. 

Obtain Final Decree of Divorce

The last step in Pennsylvania is to obtain a Divorce Decree. Ensure that any changes to the paperwork are made as soon as possible with your local county clerk in order to avoid any delays in the divorce proceedings. Provide the office where you’ve filed all previous pleadings with two stamped envelopes, one with your current address and one with your spouse's. Once the Court grants the Divorce Decree, they’ll send both parties a copy of the paperwork. If you need to change your name, then make sure to request additional certified copies of the Decree to provide to Social Security and other necessary agencies. 

How Property is Divided in a Pennsylvania Divorce

Pennsylvania operates as an equitable division state, which usually means a judge will order that marital property be split 50/50. However, a fair distribution is not always the case, and it doesn’t mean that assets will be split evenly among the couple. Marital assets and debts include everything the couple acquired, individually and together, during the marriage, such as retirement benefits. Property is considered separate or nonmarital if a spouse owned it before marriage or acquired it as a gift or inheritance, such as assets that the couple defined in a prenuptial agreement. There’s also the third category of “divisible property,” which applies to property obtained between separation and divorce. Divisible property may be divided between the parties depending on the circumstances. Many factors can impact how property is divided. In Pennsylvania, you can file a complaint for equitable distribution to request considerations of child custody, alimony, and child support. 

Pennsylvania Divorce FAQs

Every state has different rules and procedures for filing for divorce, which can add a lot of stress to an already challenging time. If you can work with your ex and create a mutually beneficial settlement agreement, you can cut down on the cost of attorney fees. While a divorce can take anywhere from 90 days to multiple years of arbitration, ensuring your submitted court documents contain the proposed terms of your arrangement will save you time and money. 

How long does a divorce take in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, a divorce can take anywhere from 90 days to a year, or more, depending on how you file and a variety of other factors. Making sure you meet the eligibility requirements for residency and separation will speed up the process. 

How much does a divorce cost in Pennsylvania?

Calculating the cost of a divorce is a complex process and varies widely depending on the specifics of your case. A mutual consent divorce is the least expensive option, with divorces ranging from $300-$400 in court fees. This range jumps to upwards of $6,000 once you consider attorney fees. Folks who are using an online service can cut down on unnecessary lawyer fees and pay a fee of $139 for an online service. The most expensive part of getting a divorce is mediating disputes. If you and your spouse struggle to agree on a settlement, you’ll have to rely on a judge and your lawyer to advocate for your position, which can cost anywhere from $13 - $30K once everything is said and done.  

Can you file for a divorce online in Pennsylvania?

Yes, you can use a third-party online service like OnlineDivorce.com to help you fill out your divorce paperwork using a simple questionnaire. Once the documents are filled out, you will file the divorce forms with your local court. However, if you need access to the potential forms for your divorce, the Pennsylvania court system has them all listed here

How long after a divorce can you remarry in Pennsylvania?

Once a legal divorce is granted, there is no waiting period in Pennsylvania before you remarry. Like most states, Pennsylvania allows you to remarry immediately if you wish. 

Can I get divorced without my spouse present in Pennsylvania?

Yes, as long as you meet the separation and residency eligibility requirements for a divorce, you can get divorced without your spouse signing any documents or being present at the hearing. 

Can I get a divorce while pregnant in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, the law assumes that the current husband is the father of a child conceived within a marriage, even during the separation period. Due to this rebuttable presumption, it’s imperative to establish paternity with the court to ensure your divorce can move forward when the baby is born. If you get pregnant, it’s important to disclose the expectant child to the court, so decisions regarding child support and custody can be made. While there’s no specific law against getting a divorce while pregnant, a judge may wait until after the baby is born to finalize a settlement agreement.

Are Pennsylvania divorce records public?

Yes, Pennsylvania courts consider divorce records to be public documents and are therefore accessible online and via valid records requests. To find copies of divorce records and other public documents, search here

In Pennsylvania, most of the forms you’ll need to file for divorce can be accessed online, and there are many resources for folks who need support beyond filing court documents. Before you make any big decisions about representation or a settlement agreement, research your local ordinances and speak with the local county clerk to avoid making clouded judgments that can deeply affect your financial future. The Legal Aid of Pennsylvania is a valuable resource for those folks looking for specifics about the type of forms and aid available to them. 

If money is a barrier to filing for divorce, the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network provides civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families. They provide assistance to eligible clients in every county, so that you can find an attorney close to home. Their partner site is also available to provide information on civil legal issues, including your rights, self-help information, and links to social services. You can also search for county-specific information and forms to get a jumpstart on your divorce. 

Disability Rights of Pennsylvania

If you’re a person with a disability who needs help navigating the legal process, the Disability Rights of Organization can set you up with an advocate to protect your rights. To get started, call (800) 692-7443 or fill out their intake form online

PA Safe Help

Due to funding from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), Pennsylvania’s PA Safe Law is a network for survivors of domestic abuse to access free and credible legal information. While the PA Safe Law doesn’t represent clients, its partnerships with other local organizations and list of available resources can help folks find the legal information they need during a vulnerable time.

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