Most “How to Get Divorced” articles take a rather narrow view, i.e., the legal process. Obviously, these articles are typically written by lawyers. 😉
How to get divorced can be a multi-faceted, complicated, entangled, frustrating, non-linear, jumble of a messy process. Not surprising, given that there are two spouses, years of history, hot emotions, finances, children, a home, secrets and lies, hidden agendas involved.
Given all this, though, let me try to keep this “how to get divorced in Pennsylvania” piece as simple as possible for this medium. Here are what we consider to be three essential components.
#1: Financially Prepare and Protect Yourself Before You Start the Divorce
- Open a separate checking and credit card account at a new bank
- Check your credit report and score and then periodically track
- Establish private communication, e.g., P.O. box, email account
- Gather and copy financial and legal documents—tax returns, statements for loans, bank and retirement accounts, investments, wills, trusts, deeds, car registrations, insurance policies—and store them outside of the marital home
#2: Talk to Professionals
Most think to first call a lawyer after they talk to a few of their friends and family members. Let me suggest otherwise. Friends and Cousin Amy are great for support but they aren’t likely stellar for advice on how to handle one of the most important and costly events of your life. While well-intentioned, their cases and knowledge of others’ situations are different than yours and you will need the advice of a professional for accurate advice.
You’re best first stop is not with a lawyer but with a far more neutral and resourceful individual: a reputable divorce coach. She or he can help you assess your situation and choose the best path forward and how to execute. They can also help you with setting objectives for how you want to handle the divorce on a personal level, i.e., how to be your “best self.” They can help you better work with a lawyer or mediator, saving you money and significant angst. They are more than anything, the quarterback on your divorce team who can help you assemble the right individuals for the jobs you’ll need to get done.
Lawyers, of course, are a critical component for their knowledge of the legal process. They will often unnecessarily steer you, though, to costly litigation, without regard for what will be best for you and your spouse. Many lawyers are now moving into mediation as its become more popular with divorcing couples, but keep in mind that lawyers aren’t necessarily the best choice for mediation. They are also not equipped to handle the emotional, practical, or complex financial issues of divorce, so make sure you talk to more than just a lawyer early on in the divorce process.
Mediators are a good information source as you consider mediation as a divorce process. Other professionals to consider are a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) to discuss optimal or creative financial settlement options, or a therapist who may be able to provide extended emotional support.
# 3: Familiarize Yourself with PA Divorce Law and County Procedures
a. Legal Separation
In Pennsylvania, there is no legal separation. You are married until you’re divorced. However, you can create a legally binding separation agreement during your period of separation that covers such things as child support, spousal support, joint bills, parenting plan, health insurance, loans and other debts, etc.
One spouse must have been a resident of PA for a minimum of six months to file for divorce in Pennsylvania.
c. Types of Divorce, Waiting Periods, and Filings
You can file a fault-based divorce, which will typically be contested and take years, or a no-fault divorce.
A no-fault divorce can be under mutual consent, wherein you will wait a minimum of 90 days after filing assuming you both sign affidavits of consent. If one of you, though, is not willing to sign, you must then live separate and apart for one year to establish grounds for divorce. Note that you may live in the same home and be considered to have lived separate and apart as long as you are not living as a married couple.
Filing takes place in the county court’s prothonotary’s office. You will then have to serve your spouse the papers and you will have to have an Affidavit of Service as proof your spouse received them. After the required waiting period, you will file final papers, applying for the divorce decree that will state you are officially divorced.
Divorce filings are handled by county court. Filing can take place where either of the spouses resides or where both spouses agree it can be filed. Each county has its own procedures and fees and should be researched prior to filing.
d. Support, Settlement and Custody Agreements
It’s important to note that if you have financial and custody issues to work out before the divorce is finalized you must do so before the waiting period is over or the decisions will be deferred to the court. The court will look to the filing spouse for their preferences.
If you both hire attorneys and litigate in the courts, you will likely spend a minimum of $30,000 – $40,000. Mediation can reduce fees to less than $10,000. Courts will appoint legal representation for those in need or you can negotiate the financial and custody terms yourselves.
So, that, in a nutshell is “How to Get a Divorce in Pennsylvania.” It’s a bit more nuanced than this as, stated earlier, divorce can be a multi-faceted, complicated, entangled, frustrating, non-linear, jumble of a messy process, right?
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