Not sure where to begin when it comes to filing for divorce in PA? We'll walk you through the process, step-by-step, and help you avoid typical pitfalls.
Eligibility for Divorce in PA
Before we dive into the details, let's talk about eligibility first. To be eligible for a mutual consent or no-fault divorce (commonly called a "simple divorce"):
- at least one spouse must be a resident of the state of Pennsylvania for a minimum of six months prior to filing for the divorce (the PA resident must be designated as Plaintiff)
- the couple must have either no dependent children or be in mutual agreement with regards to custody and child support
- each party must agree to the terms outlined in the optional Marital Settlement Agreement (we'll explain what that is in a moment)
If that describes your divorce, you can certainly file by yourself. However, read through the rest of this blog post to make sure you're fully prepared -- and see if you need some help to file your divorce paperwork quickly and accurately. We often recommend filing in Montgomery County because you can view your case online and you don't have to be a resident.
Before You Begin
If you're someone who's had very little experience with the Courts, you might encounter some unfamiliar terms. Let's clarify those first.
- File - This means to provide documents to the Court so the Court can enter it on record.
- Service or Serve - This is a term used when you are giving your spouse papers to review, sign, and return in the correct time frame.
- Docket number - This is the tracking or ID number used by the Court to refer to your case.
- Time-stamp date - This is the date the Court issues to tell you when they processed your paperwork. It will be very important to track so you don’t miss any deadlines.
- Marital Settlement Agreement or MSA - A marital settlement agreement is the legally-binding document that includes all the terms that you've agreed to upon divorce. If you have chosen not to have an MSA, don’t worry. It's not required to get your divorce on record with the Court. It’s for spouses who want their terms in writing in a legally binding document.
- Court forms - Often referred to as the “divorce papers,” these are the set of forms required by the County Court to get your divorce on record.
Now, let’s discuss the terms Plaintiff and Defendant. You and your spouse must designate yourselves as the Plaintiff or Defendant, even in a no-fault divorce. How you file has no effect on your legal rights. These are standard terms that Courts use. And don’t worry - this doesn't imply that one spouse is suing the other.
So, what is the difference between Plaintiff and Defendant? It simply means the Plaintiff takes more of an active role in managing paperwork and has more paperwork to sign.
The filing process in Pennsylvania is broken down into three steps, plus a 90-day mandatory wait period. Although there are minor variations, they all use standard forms.
Before you start the process, we suggest that you read through all the steps, print all the forms, and create a clear to-do list for yourself and your spouse, along with deadlines.
By doing so, you can make sure you don't have your forms returned because of errors, miss a deadline, or misinform your spouse about their responsibilities during the process.
Step 1: Filing the Divorce Complaint
In this step, you'll get your case entered into the Court system. The Plaintiff will need to prepare and file these six forms.
- Notice to Defend Form - This is a standard form any time a document is filed in a PA court.
- Counseling Notice Form - This acknowledges that the plaintiff is aware of the legal counseling options for this divorce filing.
- Complaint in Divorce Form - This is the actual request to get your divorce on record with the court.
- Verification Form - This confirms that your information is correct and that you're seeking a divorce.
- Family Court Cover Sheet - This could vary depending on the county you choose.
- Copy of Marriage Certificate
Once you've prepared all the forms:
- Make two copies of all the forms
- Get a certified check for the court fees - confirm the amount by visiting your county's court website
- Create a self-addressed, stamped envelope - a large 8 1/2 x 11 envelope is ideal
- Mail the original forms, your two copies, certified check, and self-addressed, stamped envelope to your county courthouse
Step 2: Filing the Acceptance of Service
Once the Court has received the package from step 1, they will time-stamp and return the two photocopies of your original forms (in the envelope you provided).
They'll also provide your docket number. Be sure to mark this down in case you need to follow up with the Court.
In step 2, there are tasks for both the Plaintiff and Defendant. Both spouses must pay close attention to the time-stamp date. You have 30 days from that date to complete step 2.
The Plaintiff must serve the papers (one set of time-stamped copies) to the Defendant.
The Defendant must complete the Form of Acceptance - This form indicates that the defendant acknowledges they've been served the step one forms and made aware the divorce complaint has been filed. Next, the Defendant needs to make two copies of the Form of Acceptance and send in a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Court before the 30-day deadline, or the process will begin again.
Step 3: Final Forms
Once the Court receives the Form of Acceptance from the Defendant, they'll return the two copies with a time-stamp. This time-stamp marks the beginning of the 90-day waiting period.
After the 90-day wait period is over, you can proceed to step 3. Like before, there are steps for both spouses.
The Plaintiff will need to prepare and sign the following documents:
- Plaintiff's Affidavit of Consent - This verifies that everything filed is true and the plaintiff consents to the divorce.
- Plaintiff's Waiver of Notice of Intent - This indicates a waiver of formal notice.
- Praecipe to Transmit Record - This is a request for the divorce to be entered into record.
- Pennsylvania Vital Records Form - This requests important personal information.
- Divorce Decree - You'll need to complete some basic information, and this will be returned once the judge has signed.
The Defendant will need to prepare and sign the following documents:
- Verification of Defendant's Signature - This verifies that the defendant's signature appears on the correct forms.
- Defendant's Affidavit of Consent - This verifies that everything filed is true and that the defendant consents to the divorce.
- Defendant's Waiver of Notice of Intent - This indicates a waiver of formal notice.
Plaintiff or Defendant
One of the spouses will need to gather all the documents described above, and:
- Make two copies of all the forms
- Create a self-addressed, stamped envelope
- Mail to county courthouse, including MSA (if applicable)
It's important to note that the Court must receive these forms within 30 days of the date the forms were signed.
Once the court receives these final documents, it typically takes four to six weeks to receive the divorce decree. However, this is very dependent on the county and how busy they are.
In addition to the above, here are some forms you may need to file depending on your circumstances.
- Name Change Form - This legally allows the spouse to change back to her maiden name.
- Marriage Settlement Agreement - This is the legal document that includes all the terms of your divorce around division of property and child support. Usually this is prepared by an attorney. If you aren’t sure whether you need a marital settlement agreement in place, you should learn more about your divorce options.
- Custody Agreement or Parenting Plan - This is the legal document that includes all the decisions around children’s living arrangements and care. Again, this is often prepared by an attorney.
- Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) - If you're dividing up retirement accounts, you may need this form to be signed by the court for your HR administrator at your company.
Hopefully, our explanation above gave you a better sense of what's involved in filing for divorce in PA. However, as you can see, the do-it-yourself process (called ‘pro se’) can be overwhelming.
There are at least 15 forms to file with the Office of the Prothonotary at three distinct steps over a period of three to four months. You have to really do your research to ensure your paperwork is not kicked back. If you're trying to have your ducks in a row before the end of the tax year, many couples find that a quick, do-it-yourself divorce can end up taking way longer.
To make things more challenging, you can't just call a PA county courthouse for help. The clerks are not allowed to offer what could be construed as “legal advice.”
So, if you don’t want to hire a lawyer, you might look at an online service. However, this is often fraught with problems because these services don’t know the nuances (and temperament) of a local county courthouse. If you're not careful, the chances of your paperwork not being accepted the first time is likely.
Your best option is to find a family law firm in PA that can help you file by yourselves. It’s worth the little extra cost over a generic online divorce filing service.
Three Biggest Mistakes When Filing for Divorce Yourself
If you choose to file yourself, here's a heads up on mistakes that have derailed our clients. Watch out for these and you'll be in good shape.
MISTAKE #1: Losing Track of Dates to File on Time
The PA divorce filing process is full of dates—very specific days to file, waiting periods, etc. These can easily get overwhelming. To minimize your confusion, it's extremely important to understand the different time periods present within the 3-4 months before you file.
Typically, the most confusing time periods include 1) 30 day window after filing the divorce complaint to serve divorce papers and file the Acceptance of Service, and 2) Mandatory 90-day Waiting Period - this begins after the Acceptance of Service form is filed. Missing the deadlines will only delay your divorce, causing more stress and the possibility of having to re-file. Luckily all this stress can be avoided with just a few simple reminders to yourself!
MISTAKE #2: Losing Your Court Docket Number
Since most people who are filing for divorce as a do-it-yourself do not have a legal background, the legal jargon can be very confusing. One term in particular that is very important to understand is "court docket number." The court clerks keep track of all cases through a system known as a docket. Each new case receives a unique, new docket number. The court docket number allows for the court to keep your case organized and allows for you to check the status of your case with the court at anytime.
The court docket number is first given to you after the initial paperwork is filed and returned back from the court. All subsequent forms that you file once you have received this number must include the docket number on them. Regardless of whether you file in person, through the mail, or E-file, your case will be given a docket number.
MISTAKE #3: Not familiarizing yourself with all the forms ahead of time
Unfortunately many of the necessary forms in filing for divorce in PA are very similar. It may seem confusing whether you or your spouse is supposed to sign and file a form or which order to file the forms. That's why you should familiarize yourself with all the forms before you even begin the process.
Pay attention to who is supposed to file certain forms and the titles of the documents. Additionally, it's important to understand that the forms cannot be filled out all at once. Instead, you need to sign, date, and fill in appropriate information at the specified times.