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pennsylvania divorce laws

When you walk down the aisle, you probably assume the union you are about to enter into will last a lifetime. The statistics tell us, though, that many don’t. Unfortunately, sometimes marriages end in divorce, which on top of personal turmoil can bring a host of legal and financial issues.

If you live in Pennsylvania, this guide will explain everything you need to know about divorce in the Keystone State, from child support to retirement plan division. If you are in the midst of a divorce or about to file for one, it might make sense to find a financial advisor to help you through the process. SmartAsset can help you find an advisor in your area with our free financial advisor matching service.

How to File for Divorce in Pennsylvania

Eligibility

To file for divorce in Pennsylvania, one of the two spouses must have lived in the state for at least six months prior to filing. Additionally, the party must file for the divorce in the county where either spouse lives. Pennsylvania defines residency as physically living in a location and having the intention to stay there indefinitely.

Grounds for Divorce in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has both no-fault divorces and fault divorces. In a no-fault divorce, both parties agree to get divorced simply because the marriage has fallen apart. In a fault divorce, one spouse alleges that the other spouse is to blame and is the reason for the divorce.

The following are grounds for a no-fault divorce:

  • Insanity or a mental disorder that leaves one spouse confined to a mental institution for at least 18 months, with no reasonable chance that the spouse will be released in the 18 months following the divorce
  • Mutual consent and agreement that the marriage is irretrievably broken
  • Allegation from one spouse that the marriage is irretrievably broken and the filing of an affidavit affirming that the spouses have lived separately for two years

Grounds for a fault divorce include:

  • Desertion, with absence from the home of the other spouse without reason, for at least one year
  • Adultery
  • Cruel treatment or the endangerment of the life or health of the other spouse
  • Bigamy
  • Other indignities that make the life of the other spouse intolerable

When other indignities constitute the grounds for a fault divorce, either spouse can request that the court require up to three counseling sessions.

Process to Divorce

If both spouses agree that they want a divorce, they can file a complaint and then simply wait 90 days to finalize their divorce. Both spouses must write a statement saying that the marriage is irretrievably broken. Then, they can proceed with a no-fault divorce. If the two parties have lived apart for two years, it’s only necessary for one spouse to go through that process.

In a fault divorce, one spouse, who becomes the plaintiff, must file a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas against the other spouse, who becomes the defendant. Once the paperwork is finalized, the couple will go to trial and present their cases before the court. The court will make decisions about matters like assets, child custody and alimony.

How to Split Up Assets During a Divorce in Pennsylvania

Any property that the couple acquired during the marriage is considered marital property for the purpose of a divorce. All marital property is subject to division by the court during the divorce process.

There are exceptions to what counts as marital property. The court does not consider the following items marital property:

  • Any property acquired before the marriage
  • Any property excluded by a valid prenuptial or postnuptial agreement
  • Gifts (except between spouses)
  • Inheritance
  • Property acquired between the final separation and the finalization of the divorce
  • Property that one of the two parties sold or disposed of in good faith before the date of final separation
  • Veterans’ benefits exempt from levy or seizure

How to Divide Property in Pennsylvania After Divorce

In a Pennsylvania divorce, the court divides marital property on an equitable basis. However, this does not necessarily mean that the court will evenly split property between the two spouses. Rather, the judge presiding over the case will split up the property in a way that he or she deems fair.

The judge may consider the following factors when dividing property in a divorce in Pennsylvania:

  • Length of the marriage
  • Prior marriages of either spouse
  • Age and health of each spouse
  • Income, skills and employability of each spouse
  • Contributions of one spouse to the other’s education
  • Future earning capability of each spouse
  • Income of both parties, including medical insurance and retirement benefits
  • Contribution of each spouse to the marriage, including income and homemaking
  • Standard of living established during the marriage
  • Economic circumstances of both parties
  • Tax ramifications

How to Manage Child Support and Alimony Under Pennsylvania Divorce Laws

pennsylvania divorce laws

In Pennsylvania, the judge can order child support. There are guidelines for determining how much the non-custodial parent will pay in child support, but it is not a strict formula. The court will weigh any number of factors to determine the amount of the payments, including:

  • Each spouse’s income
  • Number of nights children spend with both parents
  • Ages of children
  • Unusual financial needs of each spouse
  • Other support obligations of either party
  • Non-marital assets of each spouse
  • Extraordinary medical costs of any child
  • Standard of living for the child during the marriage
  • Any other factors, including the best interest of the child

Note that child support only covers the basic needs of a child. There are also so-called extraordinary expenses that you must negotiate separately. These include things like childcare costs, private school tuition, summer camp fees and the cost of SAT prep classes.

The court may also order alimony, also called spousal support. The judge will consider the following factors when determining whether to award spousal support:

  • Earnings and earning capacity of each spouse
  • Age and health of each spouse
  • Income sources, including insurance
  • Expected inheritances
  • Length of the marriage
  • Contributions of one spouse to the other’s education
  • Impact of childcare duties on either spouse’s earnings
  • Education level of each spouse
  • Assets and liabilities
  • Property brought to the marriage by each spouse
  • Contributions of each spouse as a homemaker
  • Needs of each party
  • Marital misconduct during the marriage (this does not include behavior since the separation, except in cases of abuse)
  • Tax ramifications
  • Capability of the requesting spouse to support oneself

Remember that you’ll need to take both alimony and child support into account when filing taxes after divorce.

401(k) and IRA and Divorce in Pennsylvania

Your divorce will likely impact your retirement savings. The court considers any money put into or earned from a retirement or pension plan during the marriage as a marital asset. Let’s say you have a 401(k) plan. Any money that you put into the account before you got married is considered a separate asset and is not subject to division during a divorce. Any money that you put into your account during the marriage, though, is a marital asset. Thus, the judge can divide it as he or she sees fit. The same factors that the court uses to determine how to divide other marital property will apply to the division of retirement plans during divorce.

After the division is finalized by the court, it’s necessary to submit a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to the plan administrator. This explains how you’ll divide the assets within the plan after the divorce.

Divorce and Estate Planning in Pennsylvania

pennsylvania divorce laws

You may have written a will or drawn up an estate plan while you were married. But with your divorce, circumstances have likely changed. Your estate plan should as well. Some parts of your will automatically change when you get divorced. If you’ve given your spouse power of attorney, health care power of attorney or an advanced medical directive, the court automatically declares these directives void. You’ll need to appoint someone else to assume those responsibilities. Similarly, any provisions in your will leaving assets to a spouse can also become ineffective, depending on the grounds for divorce. Alternate fiduciaries are not automatically changed though. So if you’ve named someone related to your ex-spouse, you may want to change that as well.

Now is also a good time to reconsider your plan for who will take care of your kids if something were to happen to you and your ex-spouse. Although you likely made a plan when you were married, circumstances have changed. You and your spouse should come to a new agreement if either of you feels differently now that you’re getting divorced.

The Bottom Line

Pennsylvania has both no-fault and fault divorces. The type of divorce you seek will depend on your reason for getting divorced. It could impact the judge’s decisions as he or she decides matters like alimony. The court considers all property acquired during the marriage as marital property, and the judge will divide it during the divorce. Division of property is not necessarily even. The judge will divide marital property in a way that he or she determines is fair, taking into factors like income and education levels.

Financial Planning Tips

  • When you’re going through a divorce, you’ll want to make sure you stay on top of your finances. You might need the help of a financial advisor. SmartAsset can help you find one with our free financial advisor matching service. You answer a few questions about your financial situation and preferences. We then match you with up to three financial advisors in your area. Each of your advisor matches will then reach out to you so you can ask the advisor questions.
  • When looking for a financial advisor, note the certifications an advisor has earned. For a client going through a divorce, an advisor who is a certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) might be a good choice.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Milenius, ©iStock.com/stocknshares, ©iStock.com/courtneyk

Ben Geier, CEPF® Ben Geier is an experienced financial writer currently serving as a retirement and investing expert at SmartAsset. His work has appeared on Fortune, Mic.com and CNNMoney. Ben is a graduate of Northwestern University and a part-time student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®). When he isn’t helping people understand their finances, Ben likes watching hockey, listening to music and experimenting in the kitchen. Originally from Alexandria, VA, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
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