Filing for divorce in PA can be a complicated matter. On top of the emotional stresses you are likely experiencing, you will also have to go through a lot of paperwork. However, if you remain organized and aware of the necessary steps, it’s possible to file for divorce in Pennsylvania without incurring delays. The key is to stay informed of what you and your spouse should accomplish within certain time frames.
If you’re not sure where to start, here is a helpful guide that can tell you how to file for divorce in PA:
Types of Divorce in PA
The circumstances of your divorce will typically determine how the proceedings will pan out and which documents you and/or your spouse need to complete. In some cases, the situation you are in will also determine how long the divorce proceedings might last, barring how busy the county courts are. Take a look if any of these circumstances describe your situation:
A no-fault divorce means that neither spouse is blaming the other for any fault that caused the divorce. There would still be a Plaintiff and a Defendant, but these are just general terms used by the courts and it will not affect your legal rights. Moreover, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one spouse is suing the other. Generally, the spouse who is designated as the Plaintiff will have to take a more active role in filing and serving documents.
To be eligible for a no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania, at least one spouse must be a resident of the state for at least six months before filing for divorce. If you are a resident, you must take on the designation of Plaintiff.
There are two kinds of no-fault divorce:
In a divorce by mutual consent, both spouses have agreed to have the divorce on the grounds that their marriage is irretrievably broken. This means that they have both agreed that the marriage cannot be saved. Typically, both parties in a mutual consent divorce either have no dependent children or are in mutual agreement when it comes to child support and custody.
A couple undergoing divorce may choose to file an optional document, which is the Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA). While this is not required to get your divorce on record, the MSA simply becomes a legally-binding agreement that outlines, in writing, all the terms you’ve agreed to upon divorce.
If one spouse does not agree to a mutual consent divorce, an uncontested divorce can still be granted provided if:
- It is proven that the marriage is irretrievably broken.
- You and your spouse have been living separately for at least one year. Some couples may still live in the same residence but they can be considered as living separately if they have little involvement with each other’s lives.
- Your spouse is confined to a mental institution due to insanity or a mental disorder. Prior to filing for divorce, the spouse must have been confined in a mental institution for at least 18 months. You must also have reason to believe that your spouse will remain in the mental institution for 18 months after filing for divorce.
Fault-based divorces can also be granted if one spouse does not agree to the divorce and the spouse seeking divorce does not want to wait for one year until they can be considered as living separately. In this case, the Plaintiff, who is filing for divorce, must prove that their spouse is at fault. To do so, they must show that the Defendant did something wrong to the Plaintiff or caused them harm. Conversely, the Plaintiff must prove that they did little to no damage to the Defendant. A court may still refuse to grant the divorce if it finds that both parties are at fault.
The following are legal grounds for a fault-based divorce:
- Your spouse has willingly deserted or abandoned you (left the home) for a year or more without reasonable cause.
- Cruel and barbarous treatment, wherein your spouse has endangered your life or health, such as by committing acts of domestic violence.
- Your spouse cheated on you or has committed adultery.
- Your spouse has committed bigamy or has married you without divorcing their previous spouse.
- Your spouse has been in prison for two or more years.
- Your spouse has made your life extremely unbearable or difficult.
In Pennsylvania, fault-based divorces can be rare as mutual consent or uncontested divorce proceedings tend to be faster and less expensive.
Important Terms To Take Note Of
It’s no secret that legal proceedings employ terms or jargon that may not be familiar to those outside of the legal profession. If you’re going through a divorce, it pays to know some important terms that you may encounter, such as the following:
- File: This means providing necessary documents to the court so it can enter these on record.
- Serve or service: If you are the Plaintiff in a divorce, this is the term used when you are giving your spouse documents to review, sign, and return within a specific period.
- Docket number: Each court case has a unique tracking or ID number. You need to take note of your case’s docket number as you will be including it for most of your court documents.
- Time-stamp date: This date is issued by the court and pertains to when it processed your paperwork. Like the docket number, it is important to track specific time-stamp dates so you don’t miss any deadlines.
- Court forms: These are the divorce papers required by the county court so it can get your divorce on record.
Steps To File for Divorce in PA
Now that you’re familiar with the types of divorce and some important terms, you can start taking steps to file for divorce. As mentioned, one of the most crucial things to remember is the time-stamp dates issued by the court. Missing certain deadlines may lead to returned forms or the process having to start all over again.
Also, make it a point to prepare a to-do list for you and your spouse. If you’re the Plaintiff, it is best to avoid misinforming your spouse about their responsibilities during the process. Be sure to also read the forms thoroughly so you don’t make any mistakes when filling them out.
Step 1: Filing Your Divorce Complaint
In this step, you as the Plaintiff will have to gather all the necessary documents that you will have to submit to court so it can enter your case into the system. For this, six forms are needed:
- Notice to Defend Form: This is a standard form that needs to be submitted for any document filed in a Pennsylvania court.
- Counseling Notice Form: This states that you acknowledge the legal counseling options available to you when filing for divorce.
- Complaint in Divorce Form: This is the actual request for the court to get your divorce on record.
- Verification Form: This verifies that all the information you provided is correct and that you are, indeed, seeking a divorce.
- Family Court Cover Sheet: This varies depending on which county court you will file your complaint in.
- Copy of Marriage Certificate: Legal document that states you are married to your spouse.
Each county has a Court of Common Pleas that handles cases involving family law. Since you’re living in the state of Pennsylvania, you can file your divorce complaint to the county court where you reside.
When you file your divorce complaint or summons, you are required by the court to pay a fee. If you are unable to afford this, you may complete and submit a Petition to Proceed In Forma Pauperis, which requests the court to waive this fee.
- Make two copies of each form mentioned above.
- Mail the original forms and the two copies using a self-addressed, stamped envelope to your county courthouse. Using an 8.5 x 12 envelope is recommended.
- If you can afford the court fees, get a certified check for it and include this check in your mail.
Step 2: Service of Divorce Papers and Filing the Acceptance of Service
Once the court receives your package from Step 1, it will return the two photocopies of your original forms. The court will also provide you with a time-stamp and a docket number.
In this step, both the Plaintiff and Defendant are expected to accomplish certain tasks.
- Serve the Defendant with one set of time-stamped copies of the divorce papers.
Keep in mind that you can’t just hand over the divorce papers to your spouse (unless they agree to accept this service). In Pennsylvania, rules for proper service typically mean you have to hire a sheriff or process server who will deliver the summons and divorce complaint to your spouse by hand. Once this has been done, the divorce proceedings can begin.
- Complete the Form of Acceptance.
- Make two copies of the form and send these in a self-addressed stamped envelope to the court.
The Form of Acceptance indicates that the Defendant has been duly served and has accepted the forms indicated in Step 1. Also, this form is proof that they are made aware that a divorce complaint has been filed.
Time Frame for Step 2: Accomplish all tasks within 30 days of the provided time-stamp date. If this deadline is missed, the process will have to restart.
Step 3: Final Forms
Once the court receives from the Defendant the duly accomplished Form of Acceptance, the court will return the two photocopies with a time-stamp.
Mandatory waiting period: 90 days from the time-stamp included in the returned Form of Acceptance.
Once this 90-day waiting period is over, you can proceed to Step 3, which will necessitate the following tasks:
- Prepare and sign the following documents:
- Plaintiff’s Affidavit of Consent
- Plaintiff’s Waiver of Notice of Intent
- Praecipe to Transmit Record
- Pennsylvania Vital Records Form
- Divorce Decree
- Prepare and sign the following documents:
- Verification of Defendant’s Signature
- Defendant’s Affidavit of Consent
- Defendant’s Waiver of Notice of Intent
Tasks for Either the Plaintiff or Defendant
- Gather all the documents stated above.
- Make two copies of each form.
- Place the forms in a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
- Mail the envelopes to the county courthouse.
- If you and your spouse decide to have an MSA, include this in the mail as well.
When the court should receive these forms: Within 30 days upon signing these forms.
When you will receive the divorce decree: Four to six weeks upon the court’s receipt of the signed final forms. However, this may take longer if the courts are busy.
Hire a Lawyer
The steps indicated above are generally applicable for a mutual consent divorce. While this is considered the simplest divorce, it is clear that there are many documents that need to be accomplished. On top of these are the time frames wherein these forms must be submitted, along with the mandatory waiting period of 90 days. In many cases, it may be difficult to keep track of all these forms and time frames, especially if you’re also going through an emotional upheaval during your divorce. If you file for an uncontested divorce or a fault-based divorce, the process can also become more complicated, overwhelming, and more expensive. For more information on the costs of divorce, check out these articles:
– Cost of divorce in Pennsylvania
– Why is divorce so expensive?
While going down the DIY route is possible, the best course of action would be to hire professional attorneys from a reputable firm like The Law Offices of Paul Brownstein. With a seasoned divorce lawyer in Bucks County PA by your side, you’ll be able to learn how to file for divorce in PA with minimal stress. This way, you can avoid errors, keep track of forms and deadlines, and focus on looking forward to your life after divorce.