Pennsylvania Divorce Law

Divorce and Legal Separation in Pennsylvania

Divorce and Legal Separation in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Divorce Basics

Divorce in Pennsylvania is conducted as a civil action, with one party, Plaintiff, filing a Complaint for Divorce, and the other party being named as a Defendant.

Residency Requirement:

To file for divorce in Pennsylvania, one or both of the spouses must have lived in the state for at least six months.


The Plaintiff, may file the Complaint for Divorce or a Petition for Annulment with the Prothonotary in the county in which either spouse resides or upon which both parties have agreed either in writing or by participating in the proceeding.

The Plaintiff must notify the Defendant of the divorce complaint by serving him/her.

Spouse’s Name:

Any person who is a party in a divorce action may, at any time prior to or subsequent to the entry of a divorce decree, resume any prior surname used by him/her by filing a written notice to this effect in the office of the prothonotary of the county in which the divorce action was filed or the decree of divorce was entered.

Legal Grounds for Divorce

No-fault Grounds:

The court may grant a divorce for the following no-fault grounds.
      1. Insanity or serious mental disorder that has resulted in confinement in a mental institution for at least 18 months immediately before the commencement of a divorce action, where there is no reasonable prospect that the spouse will be discharged from inpatient care during the 18 months following filing for the divorce;

      2. Mutual consent - the marriage is irretrievably broken, 90 days have passed from the date of commencement of the divorce action and both parties complete and file affidavits evidencing that each party consents to the divorce; or

      3. One party alleges the marriage is irretrievably broken and files an affidavit alleging that both parties have lived separate and apart for a period of at least two years.

When mutual consent is the ground for divorce, the court will require up to a maximum of three counseling sessions within the 90 days following the commencement of the divorce action, if either party requests it.

When the hearing for a complaint that a marriage is irretrievably broken has been held and the court determines that there is a reasonable prospect of reconciliation, the court shall continue the matter for up to 120 days, but not less than 90 days, unless the parties agree to a longer period. During this continuation period, if either party requests it, the court will require up to a maximum of three counseling sessions. The court may also require the counseling sessions when the couple has at least one child younger than 16 years of age.

Fault-based Grounds:

Pennsylvania courts may grant a divorce to the innocent and injured spouse when it is determined that the other spouse is guilty of any of the following conduct:
      1. Willful and malicious desertion, and absence from the home of the innocent spouse, without reasonable cause for at least one year;

      2. Adultery;

      3. Cruel and barbarous treatment and/or endangered the life or health of the innocent spouse;

      4. Bigamy;

      5. Conviction of a crime and subsequent imprisonment for at least two years;

      6. Offered such indignities to the innocent spouse as to render his/her conditions intolerable and life burdensome.

When indignities is the ground for divorce, the court will require up to a maximum of three counseling sessions, if either party requests it.


Either party may seek an annulment for a marriage that is by law void or may be declared invalid by a court.
Grounds for annulment of void marriages:

As long as the couple has not cohabitated following the removal of an impediment, the supposed or alleged marriage of a person shall be deemed void in the following situations:
  • Bigamy;
  • The parties are related by blood in the following manners: parent and child, nephew and aunt, niece and uncle, brother and sister, grandparent and grandchild, or first cousins;
  • Either party was incapable of consenting to the marriage due to insanity or serious mental disorder, or otherwise lacked the capacity to consent, or did not intend to consent to the marriage; or
  • Either party to a purported common-law marriage was under the age of 18 years.
Purported common-law marriage:

Pennsylvania abolished common law marriages in 2005. Common law marriages contracted prior to January 2, 2005 generally remain valid. Therefore, common-law marriages are now referred to as “purported” or alleged.

Grounds for annulment of voidable marriages:

The marriage of a person shall be deemed voidable and subject to annulment in the following situations:
  • Either party was under 16 years of age and was not expressly authorized by the court;
  • Either party was 16 or 17 years of age and lacked the consent of a parent, guardian or court, and the marriage has not been ratified upon the party reaching the age of 18, and no more than 60 have passed since the date of the marriage; 
  • Either party was under the influence of alcohol or drugs and no more than 60 days have passed since the date of the marriage;
  • Either party was, at the time of the marriage and still is, naturally and incurably impotent, and the other party had no knowledge of the condition prior to the marriage; or
  • One party was induced to enter into the marriage due to fraud, duress, coercion or force by the other party and there has been no subsequent voluntary cohabitation after knowledge of the fraud or release from the effects of fraud, duress, coercion or force.
When the validity of a marriage is denied or doubted, either or both parties to the marriage may bring an action for a court judgment regarding the validity, or invalidity of the marriage, and the marriage may then be declared valid or invalid by decree of the court.

Property Division

Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state. Upon request of either party in an action for divorce or annulment, the court shall equitably and fairly divide, distribute or assign the marital property between the parties, without regard to marital misconduct, in such percentages and in such manner as the court deems fair after consideration of all factors.

Marital property refers to all property acquired by either spouse during the marriage and the increase in value of any non-marital property acquired prior to marriage, in exchange for property acquired prior to the marriage, or by gift (except between spouses), bequest, devise or descent, or in exchange for such property.

All real or personal property acquired by either party during the marriage is presumed to be marital property regardless of whether title is held individually or by the parties in some form of co-ownership, such as joint tenancy, tenancy in common, or tenancy by the entirety.

Non-marital or separate property includes the following:
  • Property acquired prior to marriage or property acquired in exchange for property acquired prior to the marriage;
  • Property excluded by valid agreement of the parties entered into before, during or after the marriage;
  • Property acquired by gift (except between spouses), bequest, devise, or descent or property acquired in exchange for such property;
  • Property acquired after final separation until the date of divorce, except for property acquired in exchange for marital assets;
  • Property which a party has sold, granted, conveyed or otherwise disposed of in good faith and for value prior to the date of final separation;
  • Veterans’ benefits exempt from attachment, levy or seizure, except for those benefits received by a veteran where the veteran has waived a portion of his military retirement pay in order to receive veterans’ compensation;
  • Property to the extent to which the property has been mortgaged or otherwise encumbered in good faith for value prior to the date of final separation; and
  • Any payment received as a result of an award or settlement for any cause of action or claim which accrued prior to the marriage or after the date of final separation regardless of when the payment was received.
Factors which are relevant for the determination of equitable division of marital property include the following:
  • The length of the marriage;
  • Any prior marriage of either party;
  • The age, health, station, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties;
  • The contribution by one party to the education, training or increased earning power of the other party;
  • The opportunity of each party for future acquisitions of capital assets and income;
  • The sources of income of both parties, including, but not limited to, medical, retirement, insurance or other benefits;
  • The contribution or dissipation of each party in the acquisition, preservation, depreciation or appreciation of the marital property, including the contribution of a party as homemaker;
  • The value of the property set apart to each party;
  • The standard of living of the parties established during the marriage;
  • The economic circumstances of each party at the time the division of property is to become effective;
  • The federal, state and local tax ramifications associated with each asset to be divided, distributed or assigned;
  • The expense of sale, transfer or liquidation associated with a particular asset; and
  • Whether the party will be serving as the custodian of any dependent minor child(ren).
While an action is pending, the court may award to one or both of the parties the right to reside in the marital residence.

The court can direct the continued maintenance and beneficiary designations of existing life and/or health insurance policies of either party, which were originally purchased during the marriage and owned by or within the effective control of either party. And if the court deems it necessary to protect the interests of a party, it may also direct the purchase of, and beneficiary designations on, a policy insuring the life or health of either party.

Alimony and Support

Where a divorce decree has been entered, the court may allow alimony, as it deems reasonable, to either party only if it finds alimony is necessary.

When determining whether alimony is necessary, as well as the nature, amount, duration and manner of payment, the court shall consider the following criteria:
  • The relative earnings and earning capacities of the parties;
  • The ages and the physical, mental and emotional conditions of the parties;
  • The sources of income of both parties, including, but not limited to, medical, retirement, insurance or other benefits;
  • The expectancies and inheritances of the parties;
  • The duration of the marriage;
  • The contribution by one party to the education, training or increased earning power of the other party;
  • The extent to which the earning power, expenses or financial obligations of a party will be affected by reason of serving as the custodian of a minor child;
  • The standard of living of the parties established during the marriage;
  • The relative education of the parties and the time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking alimony to find appropriate employment;
  • The relative assets and liabilities of the parties;
  • The property brought to the marriage by either party;
  • The contribution of a spouse as homemaker;
  • The relative needs of the parties;
  • The marital misconduct of either of the parties during the marriage (marital misconduct from the date of final separation shall not be considered by the court in its determinations relative to alimony, except for abuse by one party against the other);
  • The federal, state and local tax ramifications of the alimony award;
  • Whether the requesting spouse lacks sufficient property to provide for his/her reasonable needs; and
  • Whether the requesting spouse is incapable of self-support through appropriate employment.
The court may impose a lien or charge upon property of a party as security for the payment of alimony or any other award for the other party.

An alimony award may be modified, suspended, terminated or reinstituted upon changed circumstances of either party of a substantial and continuing nature. If the receiving party remarries, his/her alimony will end.

Child Custody and Support


It is Pennsylvania public policy, when in the best interest of the child, to assure a reasonable and continuing contact of the child(ren) with both parents after a separation or dissolution of marriage and the sharing of the rights and responsibilities of child rearing by both parents and continuing contact of the child(ren) with grandparents when a parent is deceased, divorced or separated.

In making an order for custody, partial custody or visitation, the court shall consider the following factors:
  • The preference of the child(ren) as well as any other factor which legitimately impacts the child(ren)’s physical, intellectual and emotional well-being;
  • Which parent is more likely to encourage, permit and allow frequent and continuing contact and physical access between the noncustodial parent and the child;
  • Each parent and adult household member’s present and past violent or abusive conduct;
  • Specific criminal convictions;
No court shall award custody, partial custody or visitation to a parent who has been convicted of murder of the other parent of the child, unless the child is of suitable age and consents to the order.

The court shall award sole custody when it is in the best interest of the child(ren). Shared custody will only be awarded if one or both parents apply for it, or when the parents have agreed to shared custody, or in the court’s discretion, and as long as it is in the best interest of the child.

The court may require the parents to attend counseling sessions and may consider the recommendations of the counselors prior to awarding sole or shared custody.


Parents are liable for the support of their children who are unemancipated and 18 years of age or younger. In some cases, parents may be liable for the support of their children who are older than 18 years of age.

Pennsylvania uses the Income Shares Model for calculating child support and it is awarded pursuant to a statewide guideline which shall be reviewed at least once every four years. These guidelines are based upon the reasonable needs of the child and the ability of the parent to provide support. In determining this, the guidelines shall place primary emphasis on the net incomes and earning capacities of the parents, with allowable deviations for unusual needs, extraordinary expenses and other factors, such as the parents’ assets, as warrant special attention.

In every proceeding to establish child support, the court shall ascertain the ability of each parent to provide medical support for their child(ren), and the order shall include a requirement for medical support to be provided by either or both parents, as long as it is accessible to the child(ren). If medical support is available at a reasonable cost to a non-custodial parent, the court shall require that he/she provide that medical support to the child(ren).

A court may also order either or both parents to provide equitably for educational costs of their child(ren) whether an application for this support is made before or after the child(ren) has reached 18 years of age. The responsibility to provide for postsecondary educational expenses is a shared responsibility between both parents.

Legal Separation

Pennsylvania does not recognize Legal Separation. However if a couple chooses to separate, whether they intend to divorce or not, they may enter into a Separation and Property Settlement Agreement to provide for division of real estate and personal property; support for the spouse and children, if applicable; responsibility for debts and legal fees; health and life insurance arrangements; and custody and visitation of any minor children.

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