Most people have limited or no interaction with the legal system until they get divorced, making a divorce frightening, confusing and frustrating. Pennsylvania has enacted numerous laws and rules to govern how divorces proceed. While every divorce is different, judges attempt to apply uniform standards to ensure healthy outcomes for divorcing parties and their children. Most divorce laws in Pennsylvania address child custody, child and spousal support, division of property or grounds for divorce.
All states, except Massachusetts, have passed the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, and Pennsylvania is no exception. This law grants jurisdiction to the child's home state, which is defined as the state where the child has lived for the six months prior to the custody proceeding. Pennsylvania judges make child custody determinations based on the best interests of the child, and the state legislature passed an overhaul of the law in 2010. This new law prohibits judges from giving preference to either gender, requires judges to give an explanation of custody decisions and increases the penalty for violations of custody orders.
Under Pennsylvania law, child support is a fundamental right of the child, and noncustodial parents are obligated to pay child support. The custodial parent has substantial discretion to determine how to spend child support and does not have to prove that she is spending the support directly on the child. Failure to pay child support may subject the non-custodial parent to wage garnishment and, in extreme cases, imprisonment. Judges award child support based upon the income of the noncustodial parent and the specific needs and expenses of the child.
Alimony is money paid by one spouse to support the other. Judges may award it when there is an income disparity between the parties or when acts that contributed to the marriage -- such as staying home with the children -- lowered one spouse's income or earning power. Judges can consider a number of factors when awarding alimony, including the length of the marriage, the age and health of each party and the earning power and income of each party. Judges may award alimony payments on a permanent or temporary basis. In Pennsylvania, alimony is different from spousal support, which is money paid while the parties are separated or during a divorce proceeding but before a final divorce decree. Usually this money is part of an agreement the spouses made but can also be the result of a temporary order by a judge.
Division of Property
Pennsylvania law requires equitable division of property. This means that marital assets must be divided fairly between the parties. Marital assets include items such as the family home, furniture, shared bank accounts, investments and any other items of value. Judges consider a number of factors in determining how to divide marital property, including the income of each party, the health and age of each party and the length of the marriage. When one party is primary custodian for the children, that party may be awarded assets that will benefit the children. When one party committed adultery or was abusive, judges may punish that spouse by awarding fewer assets.
Grounds for Divorce
Fault-based divorces occur when judges grant divorces because of something one of the spouses did. Grounds for a fault-based divorce in Pennsylvania include abuse, abandonment, infidelity, cruel treatment, bigamy or imprisonment. In no-fault divorces, neither spouse is blamed for the marriage's breakdown and there is no substantive debate about the facts contained in the divorce pleadings. Grounds for a no-fault divorce include the institutionalization of one spouse, mutual agreement and the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. If your spouse contests the divorce and a judge finds that you have lived apart more than two years or that the marriage is irretrievably broken, he may still grant a divorce. If, however, your spouse agrees to divorce but contests the divorce pleadings, you will have to seek a fault-based divorce.