Your first step in the divorce process is to get educated on PA Divorce Law and your options.  

This plain and simple guide will give you a complete overview of all the legal issues you need to consider as you prepare for divorce in PA, specifically, as divorce laws vary by state. 

Let's get started with these steps. In this guide:

  1. Choose a Divorce Process
  2. Filing for Divorce in PA
  3. Alimony and Spousal Support in PA
  4. Separation in PA
  5. Child Support in PA
  6. Child Custody in PA
  7. Property Division in PA
  8. Make Your Divorce Legal

Once you have this foundation, you will able to speak intelligently with an attorney or divorce mediator so you stay in control of your situation.

Legal Overview of Divorce in PA

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Divorce in PA - A Legal Overview

Excerpt from most recent Live Online Q & A at Main Line Family Law Center 

Divorce Process in PA

1. Choose a Divorce Process.

The starting point for divorce is determined by your current situation and circumstances.

Pennsylvania Divorce Law is important to understand for your divorce, no matter which process you choose. The more informed you are, the more likely you are to be satisfied with your divorce settlement.

Before diving in to divorce laws for Pennsylvania, consider your situation right now. Your divorce process depends on

1) whether both you and your spouse want the divorce (contested or uncontested)

2) what you actually have to divide or work out. 

My spouse and I both want a divorce. What should we do first?

If both you and your spouse are in agreement that you want a divorce, then you have an uncontested divorce.

Before you actually file for divorce in PA, consider whether you are whether you have any financial or children's issues that might need resolution, and whether you are both amicable enough to mediate your divorce.

Under the PA no-fault divorce statute, in order to establish grounds for a divorce, one does not need to show fault which caused a divorce to be filed, such as adultery, mental cruelty or physical abuse.

If spouses sign an affidavit of consent, they may obtain grounds for a divorce after the passage of a mandatory 90-day cooling-off period.

If one spouse does not agree to the divorce, they must have lived separate and apart for at least (1) year from the date of filing before grounds for a divorce can be established. This law changed from 2 years to 1 year in October 2016.

My spouse just served me with divorce papers. What should I do?

From the time the papers are filed, you have up to (1) year to consent to the divorce. (This law changed from 2 years in October 2016.) And so, while there is no actual deadline to respond, you do have a choice to make. If you ignore it, you could lose legal rights. That's why you should not delay and consult a local divorce attorney in your county as soon as possible to assist you with your legal options for divorce. If you cannot afford legal fees, then contact your PA county courthouse and they can refer you to legal aid.

After the filing has occurred, you then have a choice to complete your divorce either through each of you hiring opposing lawyers or through divorce mediation - that is, if your spouse also agrees to mediate.

Because you may be in shock, denial, or outrage, you may also consider consulting with a divorce coach or a therapist, who can help you process what's happening and begin preparing for divorce emotionally by being in a proper frame of mind to speak with legal counsel and move forward.

Dowload The Top 5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Approaching Separation or Divorce  >

 

I want a divorce, but my spouse is not willing.  What should I do first?

If your spouse does not agree to the divorce, they must have lived separate and apart for at least (1) year from the date of filing before grounds for a divorce can be established. This law changed from 2 years to 1 year in October 2016.

Here are a few steps to take:

1) Get educated on PA Divorce Law and divorce options from reputable sources, just like you are doing now.  

2) Be careful to avoid common pitfalls such as shifting or hiding money, or listening to the advice of uninformed, yet well-intentioned family and friends. 

2) Surround yourself with proper professional and emotional support.  

3) If you are in an abusive situation, you may decide you want to separate or make your spouse move out. However, it is always wise to speak with an attorney first, as there are times when moving out could have unintended legal ramifications regarding custody or determining the date of separation, which impacts your financial settlement.

 

 

I don't want to hurt my spouse, but I still want to know my legal rights and entitlements?

This is often the biggest concern spouses have going into a divorce.  Ask yourself, "Do I trust this person to do what's best for the family?"

Usually, if neither financial abuse or untreated addiction exists, you both agreed the marriage is over and you don't want to hurt one another, then your first step is to consider divorce mediation.

Even if infidelity has occurred, mediation is often successful with proper emotional support.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, maintaining a level of communication with your spouse and educating yourself with legal and financial information now will go a long way toward achieving a fair settlement.

However, if you feel you can't trust your spouse with the children and/or finances in the least, then the smartest first step is to consult with a collaboratively-trained divorce attorney. This is especially true when financial abuse or untreated addiction is present.  You will need to encourage your spouse to also find a collaboratively-trained attorney.

Whether or not a divorce is amicable is always a matter of choice. If you have decided to divorce but your spouse is not on board, you should first seek legal advice from a private attorney.

Either way, your first step is to learn what your legal rights are - since every divorce is viewed on a case by case basis. Knowledge is the key to protecting yourself, your financial future, and your children. If you are unsure which path to take, first assess whether divorce mediation is right for your situation before resorting to opposing lawyers.

 

We are amicable and want peaceful, efficient option for our divorce. What is divorce mediation

Divorce mediation is a process where spouses are empowered to make all of their own decisions that form the basis of their marital settlement agreement for their divorce--without judges or courts deciding. A good divorce mediator is an entirely neutral party who does not take sides, but rather is concerned with protecting the rights and interests of both spouses and their children.

As the architects of their own agreement in divorce mediation, spouses fairly and efficiently resolve all their legal and financial obligations towards one another as well as all parenting matters involving the welfare and best interests of their children.  If you are concerned with legal issues such as alimony, child support and division of marital property, choose an attorney-mediator who is qualified to offer both legal education and facilitate productive discussion.

A collaborative divorce is another non-litigation option to obtaining a separation or divorce. In a collaborative divorce, each spouse retains their own divorce lawyer and they both sign a document that they will not use the courts to litigate any issues that arise in their matter. Instead, they each voluntarily disclose all of their assets and debts to one another and then engage in a series of 4-way meetings with their respective lawyers to resolve all the outstanding terms in their case which then get incorporated into a marital settlement agreement that is filed with the court. This option is generally more expensive than divorce mediation.

Find out if divorce mediation is right for you  >

Divorce Cost and Legal Fees

There are many factors that go into how much your divorce will cost, but generally the higher conflict is directly proportional to the increase in cost.

  • A court-contested divorce in Pennsylvania (where you and your spouse each hire your own divorce lawyers), the legal fees alone can cost at least $30-40,000. It is not unheard of for high conflict cases to reach $150,000 or more.
  • Custody evaluations, custody trials, contested alimony payments, and paying a spouse's legal fees are often the biggest expenses in the divorce process. Legal options such as divorce mediation can reduce legal fees to less than $10,000.

Step 2. Figure out how simple your divorce is.

Your divorce is simple enough to go ahead and file the forms necessary to receive a divorce decree without hiring lawyers or marital property settlement agreement.  

Spouses with no marital property to divide, alimony or immediate custody issues to resolve, can file what is called a simple divorce, which is a type of uncontested divorce. 

Is Your Divorce Simple?

 

It's not always easy to tell whether you should immediately hire a lawyer, use a mediator, or file on your own.

While the majority of cases in PA are filed as uncontested, there are still legal and financial issues to consider, especially if you have been married more than 5 years and have children together.

Step 3. (If simple or contested) File for divorce and get your case on record. 

Spouses who need to hire a lawyer to represent them will usually start the filing process first, as the first step toward divorce before working out issues surrounding finances and children. This signals the other spouse that a divorce process is officially in motion.

Only 1 spouse must be a PA resident for at least 6 months, and one does not need to be a county resident in order to file for divorce in this county. A little hint to know is that filing for divorce in Montgomery County or Potter County tends to be easier than filing in other PA counties.

Can we file for divorce without getting lawyers involved?

Yes, absolutely. In Pennsylvania, filing for divorce as a do-it-yourself process (called ‘pro se’) is a 3-step process with strict deadlines and forms that must be completed 100% accurately or they will be returned.

This can be frustrating, especially if you are trying to have things in order before the end of the tax year.

When you call the county courthouse for guidance on how to file, it's like calling the IRS for tax advice. While some may be very helpful, 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 divorce filing service. You will need to find a service that knows the nuances (and temperament) of a local county courthouse, otherwise the chances of your paperwork not being accepted the first time is highly likely.

 

Are there any circumstances when I/we should wait to file? 

If you are mediating your divorce, it's best to wait until your marital settlement agreement is final before filing for a divorce decree.  That's because you will be required to attach a settlement agreement with your divorce forms.  If you try to file before all your terms are final, you run the risk of missing a deadline and having to start all over again. 

Talk with your mediator or attorney about this, as every case is different.

What forms do I need to file for divorce in PA?

The following information and PA divorce forms to file apply to all counties in PA:

In PA, the filing process for counties is broken down into three steps, plus a 90-day mandatory wait period.

Below are all the standard forms that you could possibly need for all counties in PA regarding a mutual consent divorce on no-fault grounds. 

Note: Not all counties require all the forms.  Check with your county courthouse to learn which forms you actually need.

To be eligible for a mutual consent 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 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.

Step 1: Filing the Divorce Complaint

The Divorce Complaint is a legal document which, upon being filed with a court, begins a legal proceeding. In this case, it will initiate the commencement of your divorce proceeding.

1) Notice to Defend Form -  this is a standard form any time a document is filed in court in PA.

2) Counseling Notice Form
This is a standard form that acknowledges that the plaintiff is aware of the legal counseling options for this divorce filing.

3) Complaint in Divorce Form 
This form is the actual request to get your divorce on record with the court.

4) Verification Form
This form confirms that your information is correct and that you are seeking a divorce.

5) Family Court Cover Sheet

6) Copy of Marriage Certificate

Step 2: Filing the Acceptance of Service

1) Form of Acceptance (or Acceptance of Service Form) 
This form indicates that the defendant acknowledges that they have been served the step one forms and have been made aware that the divorce complaint has been filed.

Step 3: Final Forms 

After the 90-day wait period is over, you may file the final forms and apply for a divorce decree which states that you are officially divorced.

1) Plaintiff's Affidavit of Consent 
This form verifies that everything filed is true and the plaintiff consents to the divorce.

2) Plaintiff's Waiver of Notice of Intent 
This form indicates a waiver of formal notice.

3) Praecipe to Transmit Record
This form is a request for the divorce to be entered into record.

4) Pennsylvania Vital Records Form 
This form requests important personal information.

5) Verification of Defendant's Signature
This form verifies that the defendant's signature appears on the correct forms.

6) Divorce Decree
This will be the signed form that tells you are officially divorced.

7) Defendant's Affidavit of Consent 
This form verifies that everything filed is true and that the defendant consents to the divorce.

8) Defendant's Waiver of Notice of Intent
This form indicates a waiver of formal notice.

Optional Forms

Name Change Form
This form legally allows the spouse to get her maiden name back.

Other Legal Documents

Marriage Settlement Agreement 
This is the legal document that includes all the terms of your divorce around the 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 are dividing up retirement accounts, you may need this QDRO form to be signed by the court for your HR administrator at your company.

3-step-filing-process-pa

Timeline for PA Divorce Process

It takes a minimum of 3 months to get divorced in Pennsylvania, due to the mandatory 90-day wait period. Here is an outline of the 3-step process and timeline for filing for divorce in PA:

Step 1:  One party files the Divorce Complaint form

Step 2: About a week later, the other party receives the complaint and must sign an acceptance form.

After this, there is a mandatory 90-day wait period in Pennsylvania, which is also known as a cooling off period.  

Step 3: After the 90-day wait period, you are able to file the final forms.  The judge will sign your final divorce decree, and it will be sent to you.

After that, you are officially divorced.

divorce-process-pa-timeline

 

Step 4. Evaluate legal rights under PA Divorce Law.

How do judges and courts determine legal rights under the PA Divorce Law?  Let's review the 6 major areas of PA Divorce Law as outlined in the Divorce Code:  Alimony, Spousal Support, Equitable Distribution of Property, Child Support, and Child Custody.  

Alimony in PA

Overview of How Alimony Works in PA Divorce Law

Both women and men going through divorce may need financial assistance to get back on their feet, whether temporary or long-term, especially when a spouse is disabled or has not worked to raise children. Alimony or spousal support payments can help a spouse make it through the divorce and transition to post-divorce life.

In PA, alimony is awarded post-divorce and is purely discretionary, which can make it a big sticking point.  The laws states 17 different factors that a judge uses to determine alimony, and these should also be evaluated in mediation as well.

How long do you have to be married to get alimony?

A general rule of thumb used by some Pennsylvania courts, is one year of alimony for every three years of marriage, although this is not a written law in the PA Divorce Code, and therefore should not be viewed as a guarantee.

Also, while a very important factor in the alimony statute, duration of the marriage is just one of 17 factors of alimony in PA that a court can consider in determining if a case is appropriate for alimony in PA.

However, alimony is ultimately discretionary by the court. The court should evaluate each case separately on its own merits in deciding whether to award a sum of alimony and its duration.

In divorce mediation, these 17 factors of alimony are usually a starting point for discussion and negotiation between the spouses or, if litigating, their respective attorneys.

When it comes to alimony in divorce mediation, the parties themselves discuss and decide, through the assistance and guidance of their divorce mediator, what is an appropriate amount of alimony to pay that is both fair and realistic, after considering their respective post-divorce budgets.

What are some general PA alimony guidelines?

Under the PA alimony statute (23 Pa Cons. Stat Section 3701) there are 17 factors in total that a court can consider in deciding whether or not to award alimony. Some of those 17 factors of alimony in PA include: the relative earnings and earning capacities of the spouses, duration of the marriage, contribution of one spouse a homemaker, contribution of one spouse to the education of the other, the standard of living during the marriage, age, and physical and mental health of the parties.

More info on Alimony in PA  >

How do I calculate alimony payments?

Unlike child support, in Pennsylvania there is no set formula for calculating post-divorce alimony payments.

Rather, whether or not to award post-divorce alimony lies within the exclusive discretion of the court and based on 17 different factors that it can consider in the Pennsylvania alimony statute (23Pa. Cons. Stat. Section 3701).

Post-divorce alimony is not to be confused with temporary spousal support or alimony pendente lite which may be awarded by the court pending the litigation of a divorce, based upon the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines and other applicable law. 

 

How Spousal Support Works

In PA, spousal support is considered temporary financial assistance paid by one spouse to the other used to offset costs of divorce during the separation and divorce process, which, if contested or a lot of issues need to be workout out, can take 1-3 years or more.  Because a spouse is allowed by law to delay the divorce for up to 1 year after being served divorce papers, filing for spousal support alleviates the financial burden of the divorce itself.

Where can I find a PA spousal support calculator?

Unfortunately, there are no reliable calculators available online as of 2019, when spousal support guidelines were amended to change the interim calculation for spousal support.  Therefore, it is recommended you consult with an attorney, who can give you the most reliable calculation.

How much spousal support do I have to pay? How is spousal support calculated?

If a choice is made to litigate your divorce matter in court, the Pennsylvania Spousal Support Guidelines would apply. The guidelines provide a formula-based calculation for spousal support or alimony pendente lite (APL) which only applies until the final resolution of your matter.

As of January 1, 2019, the formula calculation is based on a percentage of the difference in the spouses' respective monthly net incomes. The determined amount owed under the guidelines formula will now be considered income to the recipient spouse for purposes of determining splits for child-related costs (above basic child support), such as health insurance premiums and other out-of-pocket costs.

Spousal support or APL is entirely different from post-divorce alimony which is discretionary upon the court and based on a list of 17 factors present in the alimony statute at 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. Section 3701.

In divorce mediation, spouses are provided with the PA spousal support guidelines calculation, only if they request it together. However, they are not bound by the numbers their divorce mediator calculates, but are instead encouraged to negotiate support or alimony amounts that are most fair and that work best for their needs and respective budgets, and to also seek the advice of independent outside counsel before agreeing to any child support amount.

 

Overview of Separation in PA

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of a legal separation does not exist in Pennsylvania. That is, unlike other states, spouses do not need to file a document requesting the court to issue a determination that they are officially separated, often referred to as a separate maintenance order. Instead, spouses may contract privately to physically separate and declare their marriage over. In so doing, they can contract for the division of their property, child support, child custody and spousal support.

I am pretty sure we are going to divorce, but it sounds so permanent. Should we separate or divorce. What's the difference?

In a divorce, spouses have a signed divorce agreement and file this along with the required divorce paperwork in the county in which they are seeking the divorce.

A divorce judge is then assigned to issue a final divorce decree. Similarly, in a separation agreement, the parties have a legally-binding agreement that settles all their affairs. However, they choose not to file a divorce decree with the court.

Instead, they may each remain obligated under the separation agreement for an indefinite period of time, subject to future modifications.

Knowing this key difference between divorce or separation, couples may decide to remain separated without a divorce for emotional, financial, tax and estate reasons, or so that one spouse can remain on the other's medical health insurance.

Dating is allowed as of the date of separation without financial consequences on their divorce case.

However, if you are concerned about legal ramifications, consult with a legal professional to review your specific situation and decide how to proceed. Always start with a collaborative peacemaker first, if at all possible, to avoid over-protective tactics that can make things worse.

Learn more about Separation in PA  >

I really want to move out of the house, but have been advised not to leave. What should I do?

Moving out of the marital home can give rise to various legal rights and entitlements, such as interim claims to child and spousal support payments, as well as effect the custody rights of both parents. 

Not to mention, moving out of the marital home into another residence with a separate budget of expenses before learning about your financial rights and obligations upon a separation of households is not a wise move from a financial perspective.

Often times as well, a spouse can be accused of "abandonment" of the marital home upon moving out which can effect their custody rights in a separation or divorce.

Consult with a competent private divorce attorney first before taking any action to move out of the marital home.

Can you explain the process of legal separation during marriage?

During a marriage, one or both spouses may decide to separate. If this happens, this does not mean that they are legally separated since the concept of legal separation does not exist in Pennsylvania.

However, a court could determine that their marriage ended as of the date they physically separated, and thus the values of all of their marital assets and debts could be measured as of that date.

In Pennsylvania, spouses need not be physically separated in order to be separated in the eyes of the law. A court can determine that spouses are separated, even if still living under the same roof. The key for this determination is to evaluate at what point has the couple ceased acting like a married couple.

 

Overview of Child Custody in PA

Custody laws are gender-neutral and are designed to support both parents have shared time with their child. While no attorney is required to file for child custody, you are expected to understand the laws and procedures of your local county, as there are specific forms to file.

What are the new child custody laws in PA?

In March 2019, PA courts instituted a new process for mediating high conflict custody cases, referred to as parenting coordination. 

The rule is designed to alleviate the backlog of cases, high costs of custody trials often exceeding $25-100K in legal fees and emotional impact on children and families.

The new custody rule states, "parenting coordination is a non-confrontational, conflict-resolution process that helps families implement and comply with custody orders, reduce struggles between parents which harm their children, and minimize custody-related litigation." 

These include, but are not limited to the following issues: school-related, behavior management, childcare and medical decisions. 

In Pennsylvania, child support is a payment that one parent makes to the other upon a separation and/or a divorce to help cover a child’s basic food, clothing and shelter needs in a household. A formula exists based on both spouses earnings and how physical custody is shared. W-2s, paystubs and other documents must be submitted.

The PA formula does not covers costs above and beyond the basics, such as daycare or health insurance, which are then worked out  on your own, in mediation or legal representation Payment can be modified any time, and can be paid until a child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever occurs last. 

How do I file for child support in my county?

To file for child support in your county, you must contact your local county domestic relations office, and they will assist you with the filing process.

They will also assist if you have an open case to add a child, modify the amount, or change the order to another state. You must live in Pennsylvania in order to apply. Many counties also have online filing available. 

 An administrative fee applies that may either be one-time or annual.

How is child support calculated in PA?

Payment amounts are determined in Pennsylvania based on the PA State Guidelines which apply both the relative incomes of both parents as well as the physical custody arrangement the parents have with their children.  

Once the court awards the amount of child support to be paid, one or both parents may appeal the award, or a parent may ask the court for a deviation of the award if they can establish special circumstances for the deviation.

Child support is modifiable by law based on a change in circumstances. In mediation, parents are not strictly bound by the PA support guidelines and may negotiate another amount that most realistically suits the basic needs of their children.

Where can I find a PA child support calculator?

The PA Department of Human Services provides an online calculator for child support to help you estimate your monthly payments.  The final amount is determined by the court.

Under the law, marital property in PA includes any assets or debts acquired during the marriage regardless of whose name they are under. This may include the house and household items, the family business, stock options and retirement benefits as well as loans and credit card debt.

There are 13 factors of equitable distribution in PA that a judge would consider to decide how marital property should be divided.  These can also be a starting point for negotiations in divorce mediation.

13 Factors of Equitable Distribution in PA Divorce Law
What is marital property in PA and how is its division determined?

Marital property in PA is any property acquired by either spouse during the marriage, regardless of whose name the property is in. However, marital property is subject to some exceptions as explained in Section 3501(a), Property Rights, of the PA Divorce Code.

The actual value of the marital property is measured: (1) as of the date of the parties' separation, or (2)if the parties are involved in court-contested litigation, as of trial date for the division of the property.

PA is an equitable distribution state meaning that, should spouses go to court, the Court retains discretion over how the marital property gets divided, whether 50/50, 60/40 or some other percentage of division.

The court may refer to any one or all of 13 factors listed in the equitable distribution statute (Section 3502 of the PA Divorce Code) to determine what it deems to be a fair and equitable split of the marital property.

In divorce mediation, however, spouses themselves decide together what is the fairest split of the marital property, and a divorce mediator will refer to these guidelines as a starting point for negotiations.

What documents do I need to prepare for the divorce process?

Getting organized can be overwhelming at a time when things are in disarray. Expect to be asked for current balance statements for all assets, liabilities, income, insurance, tax information, and other related marital documents, such as the marriage certificate. Appraisals for businesses owned, retirement accounts, market value of real estate are usually also needed. Use a checklist for divorce to help manage your document gathering efforts.

If you and your spouse have no disagreements over children or finances, you may be eligible to file the paperwork yourselves, without a lawyer and receive your decree in as little as 3 months. In Pennsylvania, there is a 3-step filing process, plus the 90-day mandatory wait period.

Download a divorce document checklist  >

List of Forms to File for Divorce  >

8. Making Your Divorce Legal

Once your terms are final, you'll need to make sure these provisions are put into a legally-enforceable contract. The PA courts refer to this as a marital settlement agreement, or MSA, or property settlement agreement. 

The marital settlement agreement (MSA) is a legal contract of how you intend to divide your assets and debts, as well as spousal support and/or child support. It can also include a parenting plan or custody agreement.

In PA, does a memorandum of understanding mean I am divorced by law?

No.  Several private divorce mediation services exist to assist spouses in obtaining a "memorandum of understanding" of the terms for their divorce. Although this is a valuable service, this memorandum is not a legally binding document. Moreover, it leaves clients at the doorstep in that they must then retain a private lawyer to draft a formal agreement of their understanding and then are left to file for the divorce on their own without any guidance or direction, unless they pay additional fees to a legal professional who can guide them through the administrative divorce filing process in PA.

When you file for divorce, unless your divorce is simple, you will need to attach a legally binding marital settlement agreement, to file the divorce with the county court.

prepare the necessary paperwork and specific steps to file an uncontested divorce in your county to obtain a final decree. 

You may also need a Qualified Domestic Relations Order(s) to divide retirement prior to your divorce being granted.

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