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The change to Pennsylvania divorce law, and what it means to you

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Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. – John F. Kennedy

On October 4, 2016 Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed into law House Bill 380 of 2015, which reduced the waiting period for an “Irretrievable Breakdown” no-fault divorce ground from two years after the spouses separate, to only one. The change took effect on December 5, 2016.

The way we were: two year separation before divorce in PA.
Pennsylvania has two “no-fault” divorce grounds: Mutual Consent, and Irretrievable Breakdown. Mutual Consent requires no particular length of separation, but does require the active cooperation of the spouses, and either spouse can bring the divorce process to a screeching halt simply by refusing to sign the divorce consent forms. If there is no mutual consent, grounds for divorce of Mutual Consent simply cannot be established, that remains true even after Pennsylvania’s divorce law change goes into effect.

For the divorce-filing spouse in Pennsylvania who wants to move things forward anyway, but who cannot establish old-fashioned “fault” grounds (such as adultery) against a spouse, that leaves only the Irretrievable Breakdown divorce ground. Irretrievable Breakdown does not require consent, but does require not only that the marriage be irretrievably broken (no surprise) but also that two or more years have passed from the date of the parties’ final separation. Divorce is never “automatic” after two years in Pennsylvania; this is a common misconception. In most cases, the two-year separation simply means that your spouse’s refusal to consent to divorce stops being a barrier against your moving forward toward closure.  At the two-year mark, your spouse’s non-cooperation changes from “You shall not pass!” into “Whatever, do what you have do.”

“New wave divorce” in Pennsylvania: the two-year wait gets cut in half.
For married couples in Pennsylvania who separated on or after December 5, 2016, the Irretrievable Breakdown ground for divorce will require only one year of living separate and apart for one spouse to be able to proceed toward a divorce decree without the other spouse’s consent. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is a major game-changer.

Please note that married couples who separated before December 5, 2016 must still have a full two years of separation to establish grounds for divorce under “irretrievable breakdown.”

How will the change in Pennsylvania law affect my divorce?
Imagine that you live in PA and are married-but-separated, and that you are economically dependent upon your spouse (which might be your exact situation). You might already know that Pennsylvania law allows you to file for spousal support without also having to file a claim against your spouse for divorce. Once you have been to court and your spouse is required to pay support money to you each month, you are effectively being paid to do nothing at all when it comes to cooperating with a divorce process. What do you do next?

In most cases you do what you are being paid to do, of course: nothing… nothing at all. Your spouse can go ahead and file for divorce, but you have no obligation to sign the consent forms that would let the divorce process move forward under Mutual Consent. Unless you have a compelling reason to file for divorce yourself (and sometimes those reasons exist), if you are like most people you will end up stretching your advantage until your spouse can move things forward anyway under the Irretrievable Breakdown ground.

The change to Pennsylvania divorce law chops a full twelve months off of that free ride. For people stuck paying spousal support month after month, the reduced waiting period might well be cause for celebration. If on the other hand you are a Pennsylvania spouse who receives support, you now will have a much smaller window of time to get your finances and your life together and to decide “what you want to be when you grow up,” before you can be compelled to participate actively in in the process of working your way toward full economic closure for your marriage (possibly including alimony and marital property division).  Since the most successful alimony claims tend to involve a clear plan for improving your economic situation, an economically-dependent spouse’s window of opportunity is now massively reduced.  The same procrastination that would have been your best friend under the old law may now be toxic to the strength of your case.

This change makes it more important than ever before to talk to a local Pennsylvania divorce lawyer sooner rather than later. There is opportunity as well as challenge in every situation, no matter how difficult, and your best chance to take advantage of it only happens if you are willing to be proactive. Where divorce and family law are concerned, an ounce of prevention really can be worth a pound of cure.

If you are in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call our Pittsburgh divorce and family law office for your free consultation by telephone.

Related articles:
How long will my divorce take, if we both want it?
How long will my divorce take, if my spouse won’t agree?
Riding the tiger: the cost of divorce


If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call our office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh divorce lawyer.  Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential.  We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.

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