No-Fault Divorce Grounds in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s “Divorce Code” starts at 23 Pa.C.S. § 3101, and lays out the different paths to divorce.  § 3301(c) and (d) in lay out the “no-fault” grounds for divorce.  The two main methods of no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania are “mutual consent” divorce and “irretrievable breakdown” divorce.  Usually, if both parties agree they should get divorced, a no-fault divorce is the fastest and simplest option.  Sometimes, the courts do not even require any hearings

Keep in mind that both of these use the term “irretrievable breakdown” in the Code.  This term sounds quite severe, but all it really means is that the marriage is broken and cannot be fixed.  In either a mutual consent divorce or an irretrievable breakdown divorce, the parties will claim the marriage is broken and unfixable.  The main differences between the two types come down to the process for each.

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Mutual Consent

Under 23 Pa.C.S. § 3301(c), a court can grant a divorce when both parties agree to get divorced.  There are still some specific steps for how this process works:

  • Both parties file sworn statements consenting to the divorce and agreeing that the marriage is irretrievably broken.
  • The parties wait 90 days
  • The judge grants a final decree of divorce

Because this process only requires 90 days and the agreement of both sides, it can happen quite quickly and without much work.

Of course, for this type of divorce to work, both parties need to agree to work toward a divorce.  Also, even though it may seem simple, the process of filing and properly writing the court documents may still require a lawyer.

Irretrievable Breakdown

Under 23.  Pa.C.S. § 3301(d), a court can grant a divorce for an irretrievable breakdown.  This is quite similar to a mutual consent divorce, but works a little differently.  In many cases, an irretrievable breakdown divorce works like this:

  • One party files for divorce based on irretrievable breakdown.
  • That party also states that the parties have lived “separate and apart” for at least one year
  • The other party does not deny the allegations
  • The judge grants a final decree of divorce

This is also a relatively quick procedure, and does not even require much from the other party.  This may be the best option if one party is reluctant to get divorced, but will not actually challenge the divorce.

In other cases, the party who files may face some pushback.  If the other party responds to the divorce filing by denying that the marriage is broken, the court may hold a hearing.  The hearing’s purpose would only be to answer two questions:

  1. Is the marriage irretrievably broken?
  2. Have the parties lived separate and apart for at least one year?

Usually, a court will not hold any hearings for other purposes than finding the answers to these questions.

If the judge can get a good answer that yes, the marriage is broken and they have lived separately, then he will grant a divorce.  It is within a judge’s power to order couples counseling or some other sort of counseling to make sure the marriage is broken, so this type of divorce may take longer.

If for some reason a court denies either no-fault divorce, the parties may have to rely on a fault divorce instead.

Fault Divorce Grounds in Pennsylvania

If your spouse will not consent to divorce, Pennsylvania law has other options.  While a contested or disputed divorce is more complex and takes longer, it may be the only option.

The way the Divorce Code phrases things may bother readers.  First, the name “fault” grounds does not need to imply blame in every divorce.  The Code also requires that the filing party be “innocent and injured.” This does not mean that the party is a perfect example of a loving spouse, and the other is a monster.  Instead, this language simply means that one party did something that warrants a divorce, and the other party did not.  For instance, in a divorce based on adultery, to be “injured and innocent,” you must not commit adultery yourself or as revenge for the other party’s adultery.

Pennsylvania has six grounds for a fault divorce:

  1. “Willful and malicious” desertion: One party left the house without a good reason, and has not lived there for over a year.
  2. Adultery: One party cheated on the other.  “Adultery” is not defined, so some parties’ definitions may not match the court’s definition.
  3. “Cruel and barbarous treatment”: One spouse treated the other so poorly, so as to endanger their health or safety.  Physical abuse may be enough to prove these grounds.
  4. Bigamy: One spouse was already married.  To qualify as bigamy, the spouse must know they were already married – confusing technicalities might not count.
  5. Imprisonment: One party was convicted of a crime and sentenced to over a year in prison.
  6. “Indignities”: One party treated the other so poorly (“offered… indignities”) that their “condition [was] intolerable” and their “life [was] burdensome.” This phrasing is outdated and confusing, but basically means that one party made the other’s life unbearable.  This may include mental or verbal abuse.

Even though it is not on the list of fault grounds, 23 Pa.C.S. § 3301(b) also allows divorce when one party is institutionalized.  If, because of “insanity or serious mental disorder,” one party will be spending at least 18 months in an institution, a court can grant a divorce.  For a court to allow this, there must be “no reasonable prospect” that the spouse will be released in the 18 months following the filing for divorce.

What are the Differences between Fault and No-Fault Divorce?

In general, both types of divorce, fault and no-fault, can get you the same results.  Both types get you a final decree of divorce and end the marriage.  Under both systems, parties are entitled to equitable division of their marital property, and each party keeps their individual property.  Alimony (spousal support) and child support are also still available under each system.

The two main differences between fault and no-fault divorce are in the speed of the process, and in how alimony is decided.

In general, no-fault divorces are quicker.  This may not always be the case, but since no-fault divorces generally do not need hearings, they can move through the courts much more quickly.  Plus, fault divorces that need to go to court generally need time for lawyers to submit documents, respond to documents, research facts, and prepare for court.  In a no-fault divorce, there are only a few documents to submit, and only a 90-day waiting period in the fastest type of case.

When one party seeks alimony (or spousal support) after the divorce is finalized, fault in the divorce is one of the factors courts look at.  If it was a no-fault divorce, the courts will not usually consider this factor.  In cases of adultery or abuse, though, the party who seeks alimony may get extra alimony because of the other party’s fault.

In every case, it is important to talk to a lawyer about your options and the consequences of choosing one over the other.  Ultimately, both no-fault and fault divorces accomplish the same thing, but the routes are very different.  This may also be a huge factor, because lengthy divorce proceedings can be expensive.  Your lawyer can help you better understand your choices and the pros and cons of each choice.

Contact a Divorce Lawyer in the Philadelphia Area

If you are considering a divorce in Pennsylvania, the law provides a number of options.  Working with a strategic divorce lawyer can often minimize the impact on your life and the length of the divorce battle.  To discuss your divorce with one of the lawyers at the Sadek & Cooper Law Offices, call 215-814-0395 today.

We have offices in Center City and Northeast Philadelphia, plus offices in Delaware County and Bucks County.  Our lawyers also serve clients in Montgomery and Chester Counties.

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