Pennsylvania Reduces Divorce Waiting Period
On October 4, 2016, Governor Wolf signed into law Act 102 which changed the waiting period to proceed with a contested no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania from two years to one year. The law becomes effective 60 days after the Governor signed the law which would be December 3, 2016. What this means for Pennsylvania residents in the process of a divorce or contemplating divorce is that they will be able to proceed to Court faster when they cannot agree on the terms of a divorce.
In order to be divorced in Pennsylvania the party seeking the divorce must establish grounds for the divorce. In Pennsylvania there are four ways to establish grounds. The first is by establishing fault. In a fault divorce it must be established that one party is at fault by falling into one of the following categories: desertion; adultery; abuse; bigamy; imprisonment; and indignities. If fault can be established there is no waiting period and a divorce can proceed immediately. Fault can only be established through a hearing before the Court to determine the facts of each individual case.
The second is institutionalization which requires one of the parties to have been committed to a mental institution for a period of at least 18 months before the filing of a divorce complaint and with no prospect of release for at least 18 months after the filing.
The third is mutual consent which requires that both parties agree to all the aspects of the divorce and distribution of property. Under this category there is a 90 day waiting period before the divorce can be finalized, even if both parties are in agreement.
The final way to establish grounds for a divorce in Pennsylvania is to prove that the marriage is irretrievably broken. This requires that the parties have been separated for a specified time. As stated above, until Governor Wolf signed Act 102 parties were required to wait for two years from the time of separation to ask the Court to resolve the divorce. This is often called a contested divorce because the parties are unable to agree to the terms of the divorce on their own and must put the matter before the Court to decided issues such as equitable distribution of property and alimony. Now, beginning on December 3, 2016, the parties to a divorce will be able to move forward after only one year.
For some this change will be welcomed and is believed to be long overdue. The two year waiting period was put in place with the hope that a cooling off period may lead the parties to reconcile. However, many believe that two years is far too long and that if reconciliation is going to occur that one year is long enough. In addition, many experts believe that extended litigation in divorces can be detrimental to the children of the parties in not allowing them the ability to move on. Many plaintiffs (the party that begins the process of divorce) become frustrated by the other party’s unwillingness to move the case forward and resolve the issues of the divorce. They believe that the other party may be dragging their feet for spite or to extract a more favorable settlement. Those plaintiffs will now be able to have their case heard more quickly and not be held hostage by the other spouse.
On the other hand, there are some that believe this change to the law could have negative consequences. There are those who would point out that divorce is an emotionally trying experience and can often be one of the most difficult processes that a person can endure. These critics of the change point out that a waiting period of two years allows a person the time to emotionally accept the divorce and move forward with their lives. There are many parties that may not feel ready to be divorced after only one year. In addition, there are sometimes great disparities in the financial positions of spouses when they separate. Having a two year waiting period can allow the financially dependent spouse enough time to get to a financially stable place in their lives that they may not be able to achieve in only one year.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association has been in favor of this change and has worked very hard with legislators to have the law enacted. Prior to the change in the law Pennsylvania’s waiting period was one of the longest of any state, most of which range from six months to a year and in some cases have no waiting period at all. The great majority of attorneys who practice family law and who see the effects that a prolonged divorce can have on families are in favor of the change. Now that the law has been enacted only time will tell if the change will be a positive one.