The process of divorce can be stressful, complicated, or, depending on your situation, relieving or empowering. No matter what your divorce looks like, you deserve to navigate the process with the information you need. The Family Law team at The Lynch Law Group has the answers to your frequently asked divorce questions, as well as breakdowns of divorce law in Pennsylvania specifically.
How long will my divorce take?
While every case is unique, the shortest amount of time under Pennsylvania law that may elapse before a divorce decree can be entered is 90 days after the service of the Divorce Complaint. The parties will also need to consent to the entry of the decree and waive advance notice requirements.
There is also a short period of time that will pass while the Court is preparing the decree, which may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks once the decree has been requested. To obtain a quick divorce, you will also either need to have a settlement agreement addressing the distribution of marital property in place or have no marital property to divide at all.
If your case is more complex and a consent agreement cannot be reached quickly, there is a one-year wait from the date you and your spouse separate. After that year-long wait, the prescribed Court process can be lengthy.
Depending upon the extent of the conflict between spouses and whether you require the Court to ultimately decide how to divide your marital assets, it is not uncommon for the Court process to take one to two additional years, if not longer.
Conversely, a settlement agreement can be negotiated and executed at any point in time, wherein the parties will agree to the distribution of marital property and the execution of all documents necessary to obtain a decree.
How do I know if I am separated from my spouse?
Generally, you are deemed to be living separate and apart from your spouse when you have ceased cohabitating with your spouse. However, Pennsylvania law does not provide spouses who have separated with a legal status distinguishing them from intact married couples.
Importantly, separation does not mean that you or your spouse must move out of your current residence. Rather, the Court will often look to whether you and your spouse have separated your lives from one another and are no longer holding yourselves out as spouses, but rather as separate individuals. Common indicators of couples who are living separate and apart may include:
- sleeping in different bedrooms
- no longer having an intimate relationship with one another
- one spouse expressing, either verbally or in writing, to the other that they wish to be separated and are seeking a divorce
- the obvious event of one spouse moving out of the residence
Importantly, if difficulties arise in determining whether you have separated from your spouse, the Court will presume that the date of service of a Divorce Complaint will operate as the date of separation.
What property is divided in a divorce? How is it divided?
Generally, only marital property is divided as a result of a divorce. Marital property includes any asset or liability obtained by either spouse individually or jointly between the date of marriage and the date of separation.
Additionally, under Pennsylvania law, the increase in value of any asset owned prior to the date of marriage is considered marital property. However, the asset itself remains nonmarital in nature. Property gifted to one spouse or inherited by one spouse individually is not marital property. However, the increase in value during the marriage will be characterized as marital.
It is common practice for parties seeking a divorce who have reached a settlement agreement to decide amongst themselves which assets are divided. However, should the parties proceed through the Court process, the Court will have the ultimate authority to decide which assets are divided.
Three of the most commonly divided assets are real estate, liquid investment accounts, and retirement accounts, due to their generally higher value and available equity. Quite often, parties will decide either to sell their marital residence and split the proceeds from the sale or to transfer title in the property from their joint names to one spouse individually. If the mortgage is also in joint name, a refinance is typically required to remove the obligation on the liability from the relinquishing spouse, as well as to have access to additional cash in order to buy out the other spouse’s interest.
In the event that one spouse chooses to liquidate or transfer funds from an investment account to the other spouse, it is important to examine the tax ramifications associated with this action, as it could be a taxable event.
Lastly, and more often than not, parties will choose to transfer a portion of or all of a retirement account from one spouse to the other. Parties must consider the type of retirement account being divided between them, as Federal law requires the use of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to ensure that the funds from certain types of retirement accounts are properly distributed to the recipient spouse, without tax or penalty.
How much will my divorce cost? Will my spouse be required to help pay my legal fees?
The costs associated with obtaining a divorce decree vary on a case-by-case basis. The numerous factors that affect the cost of obtaining a decree include the parties’ willingness to negotiate outside of Court to enter into a settlement agreement. Conversely, the level of conflict between the parties, as well as the size and complexity of the estates of the parties, can affect this cost as well.
The more complex a case becomes, the more likely it becomes that the parties must participate in the discovery process or retain an expert to perform a valuation of certain assets. Additionally, the overall cost of a divorce can be affected by the hourly rates charged by the legal professionals representing you.
Under Pennsylvania law, the Court has the authority to award counsel fees to either party in a divorce matter. Counsel fees are oftentimes awarded to one party, included in the monthly support payments made by the financially independent spouse to the financially dependent spouse as a way of ensuring that both parties have the resources necessary to litigate. Sometimes, an advance in equitable distribution is granted in order for both spouses to have the financial resources to pay for legal representation.
While less common, the Court can also sanction one spouse for certain behavior that may directly or indirectly affect the nonoffending spouse’s ability to proceed through the divorce process. These sanctions come in the form of an Order, directing the offending spouse to pay counsel fees to the nonoffending spouse.
Lastly, the parties, may agree through settlement negotiations that the higher earning spouse will pay, either partially or in full, the legal fees incurred by the financially dependent spouse.
My spouse and I were married for a significant amount of time. Am I guaranteed to receive alimony?
No. Alimony is not guaranteed to either spouse in a divorce, as it is often used to supplement the division of marital property when the assets being divided do not meet a party’s reasonable needs.
If a claim for alimony is raised, the Court, in its discretion, may award alimony if it is deemed reasonable after examining a set of factors set by Pennsylvania law. These factors include, but are not limited to:
- the parties’ current and future earning abilities
- the age and health of the parties
- the length of the marriage
- the parties’ standard of living during their marriage
- whether the party seeking alimony is capable of support him or herself through their employment
Alimony is rarely permanent, as it can be modified, suspended, or terminated in the event of a “substantial change in circumstance.” Events that might cause a change to alimony payments include:
- a change in income for one or both spouses
- the death of one spouse
- the remarriage of one spouse to a new third party
- the cohabitation of one spouse with a new third party
Pennsylvania Family Law Attorneys
The Family Law team at The Lynch Law Group is dedicated to guiding you through the divorce process. For more information, contact Alexander Tulaney at email@example.com, or by phone at 724.776.8000.