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Divorce Basics

Most divorces that are filed in Pennsylvania are “no fault” divorces, which means that the filing spouse is not seeking to prove that the other party’s poor conduct (such as adultery) led to the end of the marriage. Without having to prove that the other party did something wrong that caused the dissolution of the marriage, the filing party simply has to prove that “irreconcilable differences” led to the end of the parties’ marriage. In most cases, it is not necessary or beneficial to allege that the other spouse was at fault in a divorce complaint, even if the filing party believes that to be true. There are, however, specific instances when filing a “fault” divorce can be beneficial, so it is important to discuss your particular circumstances with an attorney to determine whether or not you would like to include a fault ground in your divorce complaint.
There are two types of no-fault divorces, 3301(c) and 3301(d), whose names refer to the statutory provisions where they are found. In a 3301(c) divorce, both parties consent to the entry of the divorce decree and voluntarily sign documents to finalize the divorce. In a 3301(d) divorce, only the consent of one party needs to be obtained as long as the parties have been separated for at least one year and specific filing and notice requirements have been met.
Some divorces are “simple,” in that the parties do not have any assets to divide or any other claims to address. In many other divorces, however, one or both parties will claim that there are assets to divide, that they are entitled to alimony or counsel fees, or that there are other issues that the Court needs to resolve before the divorce can be finalized. It is possible to assert such claims in an initial divorce complaint, but it is also possible for either party to raise these claims later on in the process through various filings, depending on the type of claim that they wish to raise and the stage of the process they find themselves in.
If the parties in a divorce action agree on a resolution of their claims, they may choose to have their attorneys prepare a Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”), which is a document that outlines their settlement in detail. For example, many parties will need to decide whether one spouse gets to keep the marital residence or whether it should be sold, and their agreement on that issue would be an important part of the MSA. Most of the time, an MSA is binding on both parties—unless it was obtained by fraud or duress—and the Court will enforce it if needed.
If the parties cannot agree on a resolution of their economic claims, one of the parties may need to file for the appointment of a Divorce Hearing Officer. The Divorce Hearing Officer is an attorney who is appointed by the Court to hear divorce cases, with both parties having the opportunity to present evidence and question witnesses. After the final hearing, the Divorce Hearing Officer will issue a Report and Recommendations, which will address the parties’ claims. If the parties agree with the Report and Recommendations, they need not do anything, and the Report and Recommendations will become final. If they disagree, then they will have the opportunity to file Exceptions with the Court, and a judge will ultimately rule on the disposition of the claims. Finally, parties have the opportunity to appeal the judge’s decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania if they disagree.
The final step in the divorce process after any claims have been resolved is to finalize the divorce. As detailed above, this typically involves both parties signing off on the divorce, or one of the parties following requirements to file various documents and notify the other party that the divorce will be finalized without their consent. There are several other routine documents that need to be filed as part of finalizing the divorce, and if the Court is satisfied that all of the appropriate steps have been followed, then the Court will issue a Divorce Decree, divorcing the parties from the bonds of matrimony.
These are just the basics, but there are many scenarios that are not covered in this article. For example, some parties request marriage counseling as part of the divorce process, or some spouses may be hard to find, in the military, or in prison. While some of these issues are covered in our other articles, for any case-specific questions and to obtain detailed advice about your unique circumstances, please schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys by calling (717) 731-8114.