By Matthew T. Hovey, Esquire
A common question from new clients is, “does Pennsylvania have legal separation?” The answer yes, but how it is achieved differs from other states. The goal of this article is to explain, in general terms,legal separation in Pennsylvania. Three follow-up articles will focus on how a couple can become legally separated, how legal separation affects each spouse’s property rights, and how legal separation affects the couple’s marital rights.
In some states, in order to obtain legal separation from your spouse, you are required to file with the appropriate court. The story I use to illustrate how this works is that of Holly Lahti of Idaho. In January, Ms. Lahti won half of the $380 million Mega Millions jackpot. At the time of the drawing, Ms. Lahti and her husband, who had a violent history, were separated. Nevertheless, at the time of the drawing, neither party had filed for divorce, so they were not legally separated. As a result, Ms. Lahti’s husband is likely entitled to a portion of her $190 million winnings. Upon learning of this news, her husband remarked, “That’s awesome! I won’t have to pay child support!” (See “Mystery Surrounds $190 Million Idaho Lottery Winner,” USA Today).
In Pennsylvania, however, you are NOT required to file any documents with the Court. According to 23 Pa.C.S. § 3102, separation occurs when the parties cease “cohabitation, whether living in the same residence or not.” Unless proven otherwise, legal separation is presumed to commence no later than when the divorce complaint is filed and served.
Understanding when you legally separate from your spouse is extremely important because it can directly impact your property rights related to both marital property and, like Ms. Lahti, post-separation property, as well as your procedural rights under the divorce and your entitlement to support. As a result, if you are considering a separation from your spouse (even if you are not interested in a divorce), I recommend reviewing the other blog articles on this topic and then consulting with an attorney to understand your rights and obligations. Please see our website to schedule a free initial consultation.