Divorce Law

How to File for Divorce in Pennsylvania

The decision to end a marriage is often not an easy one, but it may become necessary for a married couple to part ways. If you’re looking to get a divorce, it’s important to understand your rights and options, and how Pennsylvania state divorce laws dictate that process. Going through the divorce proceedings knowledgeable and prepared can help you get the kind of outcome you’re looking for.

In Pennsylvania, you can file and represent yourself in a divorce. Some are simple and straightforward, that is, your case and the arrangements you make with your soon-to-be ex-spouse are fully agreed upon and uncontested. However, if there are any disagreements between the two of you, especially when it comes to property division, child support and custody arrangements, or alimony, the you are better off with getting the advice of counsel.

How Do I Start Filing for Divorce in Pennsylvania?

Each state has its own rules and procedures for obtaining a divorce decree. In Pennsylvania, there may even be some slight variations from county to county, especially when it comes to the specific forms and paperwork you need to fill out. So to start, you should go to your county courthouse or their website to review some of the rules and get the correct documents. State law also requires that one or both parties have lived in Pennsylvania for at least six months before filing for divorce.

Getting an Uncontested Divorce

In general, you can expect the process of an uncontested divorce to follow a similar set of steps, initiated by one spouse:

  1. Separate for at least one year. In Pennsylvania, you’re required to live separately for at least one year before you can file for divorce. Prior to 2016, the separation period was two years, but that was recently amended to the new timeline.
  2. File the divorce complaint. Your statement to the court that you want to get a divorce is called a “complaint.” You’ll need to fill out a specific set of forms to officially file your divorce complaint, and additional forms for “notice to defend and claim rights.” Once you fill out the paperwork completely and accurately, you’ll need to pay a filing fee.
  3. Serve your spouse. Once you’ve filled out and filed the first set of forms, you’ll need to “serve” a copy to your spouse. You can do this personally, by mail, or by using an acceptable third-party, such as a sheriff or courier, to deliver these divorce papers to your spouse. Then, your spouse must sign an affidavit to verify they were served. Note that you only have 30 days from the time you file with the court to serve your spouse, unless they live outside the state, in which case you have 90 days.
  4. Fill out the remaining forms. After you complete the service process, you’ll need to wait 90 days before you can both fill out the required consent or waiver forms for the court. This set of paperwork is a legal declaration that you both agree that your marriage is “irretrievably broken” and that you each want to be divorced. Once complete, you’ll have additional paperwork, like a proposed divorce decree or and possible a name-change form, that you’ll need to file.

Typically, you won’t need to go to court for a hearing to finalize a mutual-consent divorce in this state. Keep in mind that the terms of your divorce will be final and may require a lot of time, effort, and money to amend later on. As such, if you have significant decisions you need to make about dividing assets, child support, or additional legal considerations, you may want to consult an attorney to ensure you really have the right arrangements for your circumstances.

Getting a Contested Divorce

If you don’t have mutual consent because you and your spouse can’t agree on the terms of your divorce, such as custody, the cause for your divorce, or if one spouse wants the divorce and the other doesn’t, you’ll need to hire a divorce attorney and prepare for a contested divorce.

Pennsylvania offers the option to file for fault-based divorce. In a fault divorce, at least one spouse is claiming that the marriage has been irretrievably broken because of the other spouse’s conduct. Some legal grounds for fault divorce could include:

  • Abuse, often listed as “cruel and barbarous treatment”
  • Adultery, if a spouse was unfaithful to the other during the marriage
  • Desertion, if a spouse left the other and lived apart from them for at least a year
  • Institutionalization or incarceration, if a spouse has been convicted to a prison term or committed to a psychiatric facility

In fault-based cases, you’ll need to prove the fault to the court. Suspicions or claims without hard evidence won’t be enough to guarantee the court declares your spouse was at fault for dissolving your marriage. If the court does grant a fault divorce, it could potentially impact issues like alimony or child custody.

No-fault divorces, however, may take less time to complete, as a “blamed” party would likely fight hard against such an accusation. By not assigning a legal blame, you could also help make the proceedings less contentious.

In either case, unless your attorneys are able to come to an agreement so you can settle out of court, expect that you’ll need to go to court for a judge to decide the terms of your divorce.

How Much Does Divorce Cost in Pennsylvania?

The exact cost of your divorce will depend on a number of factors, such as the type of divorce you filed and which county you filed in. If you’re representing yourself in a simple divorce, it may only cost you a couple hundred dollars in filing fees. In a more complex divorce, however, you could spend hundreds to thousands in additional fees, including the cost of representation by a lawyer.

In order to keep your costs down, make sure that you follow the state laws exactly. Mistakes in your paperwork, service, or filing process could mean you need to start over and repay to file. Errors or oversights in the specific terms you both agree on could also cost you a lot more money in the long run if you end up required to pay or receive less child support, property, or alimony than you’re required or entitled to. As such, it’s much better to take the time and expense to do it correctly and thoroughly the first time. An attorney can save you thousands in avoided mistakes.