When a marriage fails in Pennsylvania, spouses can file for divorce. The state's domestic relations law, set forth in Title 23 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, is designed to ensure that each spouse is treated fairly and any children will be well cared for following the divorce. This includes an equitable distribution of assets and debts, spousal support, custody arrangements and child support.
Either spouse can begin a divorce action by filing a complaint for divorce in the Court of Common Pleas located in the county where either spouse resides. Additionally, in order for a Pennsylvania court to have jurisdiction over a divorce proceeding, one spouse must meet the state's residency requirement. Pennsylvania law requires that one spouse has resided in the state for six months prior to filing for divorce.
Grounds for Divorce
Pennsylvania recognizes both fault and no-fault grounds for divorce. No fault divorce means that neither spouse committed any misconduct leading to the end of the marriage. State law allows for "irretrievable breakdown," which means the marriage has fallen apart with no chance of reconciliation. This ground requires the spouses to live apart for at least two years prior to filing. Fault grounds include adultery, bigamy, abandonment, abuse and incarceration for more than two years.
Division of Property
After a divorce, each spouse is entitled to his separate property, anything owned prior to marriage as well as any gifts or inheritances received during the marriage, and a fair share of marital assets. Pennsylvania courts prefer spouses to negotiate a property settlement; however, if they are unable to do so, the court will divide marital assets to achieve an "equitable distribution." This means each spouse is entitled to a fair, though not always equal, share of the marital property. The court considers each spouse's age and health, employment situation and income, duration of the marriage, each spouse's role in the marriage (caretaker vs. wage earner), value of each spouse's separate property and whether either spouse wastefully spent or disposed of marital property. An additional factor, especially important when considering who will retain the marital residence, is whether there are minor children and which spouse will serve as their primary custodian.
Alimony may be awarded to provide financial support to one spouse on a temporary or permanent basis, according to Pennsylvania law. If a spouse requires assistance during the divorce, the more financially stable spouse will be ordered to pay "alimony pendente lite," which is temporary support paid during the proceedings. When the divorce is finalized, that order, if still necessary, will be converted into an alimony order. In determining the amount and duration of alimony payments, a Pennsylvania court will consider the length of the marriage, each spouse's income as well as age and any health concerns, especially if either will affect the spouse's ability to work, and any marital misconduct. Additionally, the court must examine the needs of the spouse seeking support and whether she is unable to meet them with her own assets and income, as well as the supporting spouse's ability to meet the support obligation while still providing for his own reasonable needs. Lastly, the court may order temporary alimony if a spouse needs time to complete an education or training program to obtain suitable employment with a self-supporting income.
Custody and Support
Generally, Pennsylvania courts prefer to award shared custody of children to both parents. This ensures that parents have "frequent and continuing contact" with the children. Custody decisions are made in the "best interests of the child" and sole custody will be awarded to one parent if the other has a history of violence against the spouse or child. After custody, the court must issue a child support order. The basic support amount is determined from the parents' total income and is proportioned according to each parent's share of that income. The amount is further offset by the amount of time each parent spends with the child. The more equal the time is, the less child support is required since the court assumes parents each provide financially for the child when he is in their custody.