Under Pennsylvania law, one of the parties to the divorce action must have been a bona fide resident of Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to the commencement of the divorce. Bona fide residence is defined as actual residence with domiciliary intent or the place where a party intends to return to if temporarily absent from the state. Domicile is the place where a person has his or her true, fixed, permanent home with the intention of returning after any absence. You can look at address, driver’s license, voter registration and tax filings for confirmation of their permanent residence.

An action for divorce should be brought in the county where one of the party resides especially if there is real property involved. There are two exceptions allowing a divorce action to proceed in a different county including by mutual agreement of the parties in writing or by participating in the action started in a different county.

Parties may elect to file in a different county for a simple case to benefit from lower filing fees. If two divorce actions are commenced within 90 days of each other, the county where a party resides or where the last marital residence was located gets to determine which county should handle the matter. If neither county is the location of the last marital residence and no party resides in either county, the county that received a complaint in divorce first can make the determination as far as which county will proceed.

A divorce action that is filed in the wrong county may need to be transferred to the county where the bulk of the property is located or where the children reside for custody or where one of the parties reside for support. This will likely result in the expense of having to file a new complaint in the appropriate county as well as the expense and delay of petitioning to have the matter transferred.

A common law marriage is distinguished from a regular marriage in that no marriage license is required. Instead, parties just have exchange words of intent to be married and hold themselves out to their community as a married couple. Often, the parties also lived together for some length of time as well. Common law marriage was abolished in Pennsylvania in 2005. Parties who met the requirements for common law marriage prior to 2005 can still be recognized as valid marriages. Once a common law marriage is established, it can only be resolved by divorce just as with any regular marriage. Moser v. Renninger, 2012 PA Super 59 (2011) discusses how to evaluate whether a valid common law marriage exists.

In Moser v. Renninger, Wife filed a divorce complaint on November 19, 2010 stating that her and Husband had entered into a valid common law marriage in 1985. Husband subsequently filed an Action for Declaratory Relief asking the court to declare that no common law marriage ever existed. Initially, the court held a common law marriage was in fact established on June 8, 1985. Husband immediately sought to appeal the court’s finding but his appeal was denied on the basis that it was premature. The court held that since the issue of whether there was a common law marriage or not was raised in the context of the divorce, Husband could not file an appeal until the divorce matter was final. The court also noted that if the issue of common law marriage is raised outside of a divorce, an immediate appeal would be appropriate.

In certain circumstances, the court may give credit for separate property brought into the marriage. Generally, any credit to be received decreases with the length of the marriage. For example, Bucks County will reduce the credit by 5% a year such that there is no longer a credit after 20 years. A prime example of a situation where this rule would be applicable is the purchase of a marital home. Say Spouse A contributed $40,000 of their pre-marital money to the purchase of the house. If the parties separated after 5 years, the amount of Spouse A’s individual contribution is reduced by 25%. Accordingly, Spouse A would argue that 75% of the $40,000 down payment, or $30,000, is their separate property and not subject to equitable distribution in the divorce. Chester County may apply a vanishing credit over the course of 10 years such that the credit vanishes in 10% increments.

The rules on credit for individual or pre-marital property can vary county to county since it’s not a statute, but more or less a policy used by the respective Masters when looking at the marital estate in a divorce matter. It is important to be familiar with the policy in the county where you are pursuing a divorce. Another practice tip is to avoid mixing individual property with marital property. It will be very difficult to make an argument on the amount of individual property that should be credited to a party if it’s impossible to trace the source of the funds. An experienced family law attorney can help you navigate these issues.

Any party experiencing abuse by a partner/spouse (current or former), family member related by blood or marriage or person with whom you share a child may obtain a Protection from Abuse (PFA) Order. The first step is to file a PFA petition with the court. After you have filed, the court will determine if a temporary order should be put in place right away. Specifically, 23 Pa. C.S. 6107 (b) requires the court to conduct an ex parte hearing to determine if a temporary order is warranted. This hearing is only attended by the filing party. It is now required to safeguard the defendant’s due process rights by way of questioning the filing party as to the truth of their petition.

A final PFA hearing is to be held within ten (10) days. The Defendant has a right to appear at the final hearing and defend themselves. The Sheriff’s office is regularly tasked with making sure Defendants are served with notice of the final hearing date as well as any temporary order if applicable. Bucks County has a great program available where attorneys volunteer to offer pro bono representation to PFA Plaintiffs and Defendants. You may also hire a private attorney for assistance in your PFA matter. A Final PFA Order may issue for a period of up to three (3) years. While a PFA Order is initially civil in nature, violations of a PFA Order may result in criminal charges.

Pensions are subject to division in a divorce to the extent one of the parties earned the pension benefit during the marriage. The court will equitably divide the marital portion of a pension plan after considering all the relevant factors in equitable distribution. The marital portion of a plan would be the portion that accrued from the date of marriage through the date of separation. An entire pension will be marital if the parties were married the entire time a party earned benefits under the pension. In other cases, a coverture fraction is applied based on the total years of service compared to the number of years of marriage. Pensions are often a deferred distribution asset meaning that each party will receive their share at retirement age of the participant. There is the option to do an immediate offset of the marital portion of the pension if there are other assets of comparable value.

In a deferred distribution scenario, post-separation increases in the pension plan might also be allocated between the parties. An example would include post-separation cost of living increases. Since this increase in the benefit is not due to the effort or contribution of a party the courts feel it should be shared. Increases in the benefit due to the effort or contribution of the party or their employer post-separation will be non-marital. This treatment of post-separation increases has been addressed in several cases including MacDougall v. MacDougall, 2012 PA Super 83 and

Berrington v. Berrington, 534 Pa. 393 (1993).

It is not uncommon for parties contemplating divorce to try to hide assets in an attempt to keep them out of the marital estate that will be up for distribution. One of the biggest red flags as far as potential hidden assets is if the spending habits or lifestyle of a party is way more than would be expected based on their reported income. You should also be wary of a party who owns their own business. If they deal in cash they can easily hide money. Additionally, what they report for tax purposes is not always indicative of income available for spousal or child support. It complex cases it may become necessary to hire an expert to analyze income flow. Top level executives may receive different forms of income. Examples include stock options, bonuses, car allowances, and deferred compensation plans. Even military members often have a compensation package that goes beyond their base salary.

Discovery is a good start in seeking to track down assets, hidden or otherwise. Tax returns and bank statements are good to review in terms of sources of income as well as where the income is going. A tax return can show rental income, interest on bank accounts, dividends on stock, etc. Bank statements can show any transfers of money and identify where it went to. Parties can subpoena documents directly from the custodian of the documents if the spouse will not cooperate and turn them over. If these initial avenues of discovery do not yield the desired results, a party will have to make a decision as to whether to invest more money in the chase for hidden assets. Any party that anticipates hiding or dissipating assets may become a problem during the pendency of the divorce should obtain a court injunction right away preventing the dissipation or transfer of any marital assets.

In order to file for an annulment, a party must establish the underlying marriage was either void or voidable. Under 23 Pa C.S. 3304, void marriages include those where (1) one of the spouses is still in a former marriage, (2) the parties are too closely related, (3) either of the parties was incapable of consenting to the marriage, usually due to mental disorder, or (4) either of the parties was under 18 if claiming a common law marriage. A void marriage is one that is invalid because it violates some public policy.

Under 23 Pa C.S. 3305 grounds for voidable marriage include: (1) where either party is under 16 without court approval, (2) where either party is 16 or 17 without court approval or parental consent, (3) where either party was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the ceremony impacting their ability to consent, (4) either of the parties is incurably impotent, or (5) there was fraud, duress, coercion or force to secure the marriage. A voidable marriage is presumptively valid unless a party challenges it. There is a sixty day time limit to pursue an annulment from the ceremony date for several of the voidable grounds. Additionally, regarding void and voidable marriages, the right to annulment is lost if there is subsequent confirmation of the marriage after becoming aware of the potential grounds for annulment. Where an annulment is to be granted, equitable distribution and potential support claims may proceed just as in a divorce action.

The receipt of an inheritance may impact your divorce or support case. Section 3501 of the Divorce Code defines what will be considered marital property, and up for division, versus what will be considered non-marital property. Property received as a gift, bequest, devise or descent is non-marital per 23 Pa. C.S. 3501(a). Accordingly, an inheritance that is received during the marriage can be classified as non-marital property. A problem is created if the party who receives the inheritance places the funds into a joint account and/or commingles with other funds properly classified as marital. In that scenario, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to trace which funds were from the inheritance versus which funds were marital when trying to figure out equitable distribution at some later date. As a practical tip, parties should avoid commingling inheritance funds with other marital funds. Inheritance funds should still to be disclosed in a divorce action since the separate assets of the party are a factor for equitable distribution under 23 Pa. C.S. 3502.

As it relates to support matters, money received by way of an inheritance is not to be considered income. This was established in the case of Humphreys v. DeRoss, 790 A.2d 281 (Pa. 2002) wherein the court noted that the term “inheritance” was not expressly listed in the statutory definition of “income” under 23 Pa. C.S. 4302 and so was not intended to be included. However, Humphreys also established that receipt of an inheritance may still be a factor under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.16-5. Rule 1910.16-5 lists factors for the court to consider for possible deviation from a guideline support obligation. One of the factors the court may consider is the assets and liabilities of the parties, including inherited assets. In E.R.L. v. C.K.L., 2015 PA Super 220, the court upheld an upward deviation of a child support award where father had just received a $600,000 inheritance. The base support award was appropriately calculated in that case without the inclusion of the inheritance money as income.

Equitable distribution is the term used in Pennsylvania as it relates to division of marital property in a divorce. Marital property will consist of nearly everything acquired in either party’s name from the date of marriage through the date of separation. Equitable distribution does not mean an automatic 50/50 split of all marital property. Instead, the statute on equitable distribution sets out thirteen (13) factors to be considered when seeking to set percentages for distribution on a case-by-case basis. In any divorce involving equitable distribution, the parties should first identify all the property to be considered. Specifically, Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1920.33 discusses the requirement of each party filing an Inventory. The Inventory should list all marital assets and debts at issue. An Inventory must be filed prior to requesting a hearing on equitable distribution.

The second part of Rule 1920.33 goes over the requirements for a pre-hearing statement. This statement is to be prepared when your case is ready to go to court on equitable distribution (i.e. after you have grounds for divorce). Again, you will need to list all marital assets and debts, however, you should also include more detailed information regarding the assets and debts such as their values or balances at date of separation and present. Corroborating documentation should be attached to the pre-hearing statement as exhibits. Appraisals may be needed to confirm the fair market value of real property or defined benefit retirement plans such as pensions. Pre-hearing statements should be filed at least sixty (60) days prior to a scheduled equitable distribution hearing. It is important to work with an experienced family law attorney when dealing with equitable distribution matters to ensure all marital property is identified and subsequently submitted to the court in a timely fashion.

Counseling may be a useful resource for children dealing with changes in family status due to divorce or separation. It can serve as a safe place for children to discuss and process their feelings. It is not uncommon for children to be reluctant to discuss their feelings with their parents. Both parents will need to agree to counseling unless one parent has sole legal custody. A parent can petition the court for an Order regarding counseling if they believe it is necessary and they are unable to get the other parent’s consent.

Family counseling may serve to repair a relationship between a parent and child that has been damaged. It may also prove useful where a parent is looking to rebuild a relationship after a period of missed time with the child. Also known as reunification counseling, its goal is to reintroduce and/or reinforce the relationship between a parent and their child. Reunification counseling can be viewed as a more collaborative approach to re-establishing a relationship as opposed to just having the court force certain periods of visitation when the child may not be willing or emotionally ready. This is especially true when dealing with teenagers. It is the role of the reunification therapist to facilitate the process with the end goal of repairing the relationship going forward. If you are facing a high conflict divorce or separation or have been inactive in your child’s life for a certain period of time and feel you may need help rebuilding the relationship, consider counseling as an option.