Pennsylvania Changes Rules of No-Fault Divorce

It’s been a while in coming, but as of October 4th, 2016, the waiting period for a no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania has been reduced from two years to one.  Signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf, the practical effects of the legislation are substantial.  As a practitioner, for instance, I can attest to bemusement clients understandably felt and expressed when they learned that, absent the cooperation and mutual consent of the other spouse, the client had no recourse but to wait two years for his or her divorce decree.  I have also heard the aggravation felt by judges and court administrators in reviewing chronically backlogged dockets, which invariably weighed-down by divorce filings taking the full two years to conclude.  Therefore, halving the statutory wait-time will no doubt force a much needed sense of rapidity to what inherently must feel like an interminable process.  Indeed, many people, including qualified professionals working in the divorce field, had roundly criticized the previous two-year period as nonsensical and/or counter-productive.  At least tacitly, one of the supposed purposes of the heretofore two-year wait time was to encourage parties to reconcile.  However, contrary to such salutary rationale, there has not been much in the way of empirical evidence showing that the wait period achieved that purpose.  To the contrary, as indicated by Doylestown attorney, Mary Cushing Doherty, in her interview with the Morning Call – “…what we’ve learned is that a long mandatory separation period doesn’t help people reconcile…Sometimes the people who were benefiting were manipulators…sometimes they were lawyers dragging out [billable] hours.”  Other commenters have pointed out that to the extent the wait time encouraged rapprochement, there is little logic to believe that one year is not sufficiently long enough for parties to work on their relationship.

I agree.  As a legal action, the purpose of divorce is generally not intended to cause acrimony but rather facilitate the “orderly and just dissolution of a marriage”, as aptly stated by PBA President Sara Austin.  No-fault divorce under Pennsylvania law is intended to be a natural corollary to mutual no-fault divorce (Sec. 3301(c) of the Pa. Divorce Code, requiring only a 3-month waiting period).  In either iteration of divorce, the clear and stated objectives have everything to do with addressing issues of child custody (where applicable), disposing of joint assets, liabilities, other purely economic concerns.  Fault-divorce, which is contingent on a spouse alleging some wrongdoing as a basis for divorce, is rarely ever resorted to as it generally deemed irrational for failing most any cost-benefit analysis. See Sec. 3301(a) of the Pa. Divorce Code.

Sponsored by Luzerne County State Representative, Tarah Toohil, the specific legislative amendments effected by Act 102 are essentially two-fold.  Most significantly, of course, the legislation makes change to Sec. 3301(d) of the Pa. Divorce Code, which had previously articulated the two-year wait period.  However, also of note, the Act also amends Sec. 3323 to include language mandating that courts now consider the economic protections of minor children before granting a bifurcation (i.e. a final divorce decree pending resolution of other matters related to the separation).  This other aspect of Act 102 is consonant with statements made to the press by Representative Toohil: “Divorce is always difficult, especially for the children who may be involved… By reducing the waiting period to one year, the emotional trauma is far less for children whose family situation is being decided more quickly. In addition, the shorter waiting period allows the couple’s financial situation to be resolved more quickly and at less expense, so they can tend to their children’s well-being.”

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