How long does it take to get divorced in Pennsylvania? The answer depends both on whether your spouse is willing to cooperate to get your divorce decree, and on how long the two of you have been separated.
WHEN BOTH OF YOU WILL AGREE TO A DIVORCE DECREE:
Mutual Consent no-fault divorce. If there are no economic issues to address such as support and alimony, or distribution of property and debt, getting divorced in Pennsylvania is relatively straightforward when all you and your spouse want is the piece of paper that says you are no longer married. When everybody agrees to a divorce, and if you and your spouse have been separated for less than two years, you will use the Pennsylvania no-fault divorce ground of Mutual Consent. You can expect a Mutual Consent uncontested divorce to take about four months from beginning to end, more or less.
Why such a long time? A “mutual consent" divorce requires a waiting period of ninety days between the date that the first documents are filed with the court, and the first date that you and your spouse will be allowed to sign consent forms. You can think of that 90-day wait as a “cooling off" period, during which either you or your spouse have the right to ask the court to order participation in marriage counseling (although in practice, this hardly ever occurs). In addition to the three-month waiting period, the court can take between a week and a month to process the final paperwork and issue your decree (depending on the county in which you file).
Irretrievable Breakdown no-fault divorce. If two or more years have passed since the date of your final separation, you can use the no-fault divorce ground of Irretrievable Breakdown. Some people believe — mistakenly — that divorce in Pennsylvania is automatic after a two-year separation, but all that a two-year separation really means is that you use a different set of paperwork to get your divorce decree. Because the ninety-day waiting period no longer applies, your spouse’s cooperation can reduce the time between the beginning and end of your divorce process to as little as one and a half months.
No matter which no-fault divorce ground you use, Pennsylvania does not require you to walk into a courtroom if both you and your spouse are willing to cooperate to obtain your divorce decree.
Some cautions: even if you and your spouse have remained friendly, even if you and your spouse have decided to handle the divorce processing yourselves, it remains a good idea to consult with a family lawyer to make sure that you really are giving yourself the closure that divorce is supposed to bring. The very best time to get out of trouble is before the trouble starts. Even spouses with the very best of intentions can find themselves in an expensive fight neither one wanted, just because something important was overlooked. Completing your divorce process while leaving loose ends such as unwritten “understandings" or outstanding debts invites exactly the sort of problem you are probably hoping to avoid.
Another important caution: do not schedule your wedding before your divorce is finished! Obvious, right? Not necessarily! Never tempt fate.
WHEN ONE SPOUSE REFUSES TO SIGN DIVORCE PAPERS:
Not all divorces are simple, friendly or straightforward. Sometimes, one spouse will not cooperate with the divorce process by signing the consent papers. What happens next?
Spouses can refuse to sign divorce papers for many reasons. Some are sensible, some are strategic, and some are just plain contrary. Even the most reasonable of people can disagree; add negative emotions and financial dependence into the mix, and circumstances can become even more tangled. Your spouse might to refuse to sign divorce papers because of anger, a wish to save the marriage, emotional pain, a desire for economic advantage, or simply having been distracted by other matters. No court will ever order your spouse to sign divorce consent documents, even if your spouse already promised to do so in writing; that would go against Pennsylvania public policy in support of marriage and families.
Lack of consent. The first of Pennsylvania’s no-fault grounds, Mutual Consent, absolutely requires that both you and your spouse sign forms consenting to the award of a divorce decree at some time after the mandatory ninety-day waiting period has expired. Just as the name “mutual consent" implies, either one of you can bring the divorce process (under that ground) to a screeching halt simply by refusing to sign the consent forms.
What happens next? If you want to proceed under the other no-fault ground of Irretrievable Breakdown, two things must be true: first, the marriage must be irretrievably broken and second, you and your spouse must have been separated for two or more years. Many people in Pennsylvania think that divorce is automatic after a two-year separation, but this is mistaken. It is important for you to understand that where family law in Pennsylvania is concerned, very little happens by itself.
Once you have reached the two-year mark after your final separation, you can sign a form that states the date on which you separated, and that the marriage is irretrievably broken. This document is filed with the court and served on your spouse, who then has a total of at least forty days either to deny that you have been separated for two years, to deny that your marriage is irretrievably broken, or to file a claim for economic relief (such as property division or alimony). If your spouse has been properly served with all the necessary documents at the proper times and then chooses to do nothing at all about them, the court will grant your divorce decree shortly after you file the final documents requesting it.
Even after two years of separation, can my spouse still fight a divorce? Yes, unfortunately. If your spouse claims that you have not yet been separated for two years, or that the marriage is not irretrievably broken, the court cannot award a divorce decree under Irretrievable Breakdown without first giving both of you an opportunity to be heard. This is true even when the circumstances are extreme. Also, if your spouse raises economic issues such as alimony and distribution of property, in most cases those issues will have to be heard and addressed by the court before a divorce will be granted.
Can I skip the two-year wait by filing for a fault divorce? All of the old “fault" grounds for divorce — brutality, adultery, the infliction of indignities, etc. — are still a part of the Pennsylvania domestic relations code of laws. It is a rare occasion for anyone to use them, though, even when somebody is at fault for ending the marriage. I find three reasons for this: first, because fault can be expensive and challenging to prove; second, because proving fault also requires that the other spouse prove that he or she is “innocent and injured"; and third, because whenever there is a no-fault ground also available, the no-fault ground will be preferred over a fault ground. In real-world terms, this means that you need both solid proof that your spouse truly is at fault, and also a good chance that pursuing the fault ground will cost you less than simply allowing the two years to pass.