DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is recommended
Initial Filing Fee: $125 to $325
In Pennsylvania, the only way to end a marriage is through annulment or divorce. Legal separation is not allowed under Pennsylvania law and, therefore, divorce is the only means of ending a legal marriage. As such, it is important to establish a date for when the marriage fell apart, or when both spouses began to act as if they were not married anymore. This is honored as the end date for any financial assets that need to be divided. As for divorce types, like most states Pennsylvania defines two types of divorce: contested and uncontested. While there are further designations, such as a fault-based or no-fault divorce, the broader point remains the same. In an uncontested divorce the process is smooth, at which point legal assistance is usually not necessary. In a contested divorce, however, or when either party seeks support or protection of some kind, legal assistance is highly suggested. If both parties agree to a divorce and the distribution of property, or if you have no property to distribute, then the divorce proceedings will generally take around four months. If there are disagreements between spouses, however, then the divorce can take an indefinite amount of time, sometimes well over two years; such as in the case of a divorce based upon an irretrievable breakdown (outlined in step 2).
Step 1: Meet Residency Requirement
Before you initiate divorce proceedings in Pennsylvania, you need to establish whether you or your spouse meets the residency requirements. For a divorce to proceed, either you or your spouse needs to have legally resided in Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to filing for divorce. If that is the case, you file for divorce in the county in Pennsylvania where you and / or your spouse reside, though the most common method is to file in the county in which the defendant resides.
Step 2: Choose Grounds for the Divorce (Fault / No-Fault)
There are two forms of divorce according to Pennsylvania law: fault-based and no-fault. A fault-based divorce is any divorce in which one or more of the following conditions are observed:
• Abandonment without reasonable cause (gone for one year or more)
• Cruel and barbarous treatment (acts that put your life or health at risk)
• Bigamy (married you while still married to someone else)
• Imprisonment (spouse goes to jail for two or more years)
• Spouse acted in a way that makes your life unbearable or extremely difficult
As for a no-fault divorce, this is possible if your relationship fall under one of these three conditions: institutionalization, mutual consent, or irretrievable breakdown. Institutionalization refers to a situation in which your spouse has been in a mental institution for at least 18 months at the time you file for divorce and will remain in that institution for at least 18 months after the divorce proceedings. Mutual consent refers to a situation in which both you and your spouse both consent to a divorce. While irretrievable breakdown refers to a situation in which your spouse and you have lived apart for at least two years and you both agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken.
Step 3: File Complaint to Begin Divorce Proceedings
The next step is to file the initial complaint that initiates the divorce process. To do this, you will need to access the specific forms for your county, which are locatable through the link below. When you file the complaint, you will also have to serve your spouse with the papers as well. So make sure to have three copies of all the forms you submit as part of your complaint: a copy for you, a copy for your spouse, and a copy for the court. You will know you have the right form if it references sections 3301c or 3301d. When you bring the complaint to a courthouse you should receive a cover sheet as well, noting their official acceptance of your complaint.
Step 4: Serve Your Spouse
After you have filed your complaint, it is your responsibility to make sure that your spouse (now known as the defendant) receives their copy of the complaint and are allowed to agree with the divorce or contest the divorce. You must serve the defendant within 30 days if they live in Pennsylvania and within 90 days if they live somewhere else. In Pennsylvania, you can accomplish this by handing the copy of the complaint to the defendant yourself, a family member at their residence over 18, a person in charge of their residence such as a landlord or desk clerk, or a person in charge of their place of work. You may also mail the claim to the defendant, except for in the case of spousal abuse. When you mail or deliver the complaint you must request a return receipt in order to verify that they have received and signed for it. Then, you will need to fill out and file an affidavit of service to verify that you have served the defendant appropriately. If for some reason you cannot find the defendant or are unable to deliver the copy through these other means, you can use alternative methods such as enlisting an agent to serve the complaint or even posting in the newspaper. These alternatives, however, require special orders from the court, and you will need to consult a judge for permission to do so. Finally, in the case of spousal abuse personal service is not allowed in order to protect both parties.
Step 5: The Defendant Answers the Complaint
If the defendant agrees with everything that is set out in the complaint, and both sides have come to an agreement concerning any property or custody of children, then they will sign the papers provided to them with the complaint and return them to the court to initiate and uncontested divorce. Should the defendant not respond within 20 days, or an alternative amount of time set by the court, then the divorce is considered uncontested. If they disagree, constituting a contested divorce, they will need to file papers stating their argument (what is referred to in Pennsylvania as a counter claim) and court appearances will be scheduled to discuss the issues. Financial, custody, and support issues are then worked out at court hearings or in an out-of-court settlement, a process that often requires lawyers.
Step 6: Finalize the Divorce
If the divorce is uncontested then 30 days after the defendant answered their service the divorce may be finalized in court. Otherwise, court hearings will be arranged and a settlement will have to be reached before the process is finalized. Once both parties have reached an agreement, you will need to file three documents: Notice of Intent to Request Entry of Divorce Decree, Praecipe to Transmit Record, and Form of Divorce Decree. Make sure to include four copies of the Divorce Decree and two stamped and pre-addressed envelopes so that the court can mail both you and your ex-spouse copies of the Divorce Decree.