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Most parties pursuing divorce will choose to proceed with no-fault grounds for divorce. A no-fault divorce simply means there has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. There are two different ways to establish an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage under the Divorce Code. First, both parties may consent to the divorce after 90 days from when the complaint was filed and served. This is referred to as a 90-day mutual consent divorce. Alternatively, if one party won’t consent, the other party can move forward after the parties have been “separated” for at least one year. This is referred to as a separation divorce. Separation, however, does not mean the parties have to physically live separately. Parties may elect to still reside in the same home but can be considered “separate” based on the definition provided by the Divorce Code. Section 3103 of the Divorce Code defines “Separate and apart” as follows: Cessation of cohabitation, whether living in the same residence or not. In the event a complaint in divorce is filed and served, it shall be presumed that the parties commenced to live separate and apart not later than the date that the complaint was served.” Accordingly, the date the divorce complaint is filed will generally be accepted as the date of separation regardless of whether the parties continue to live together or not.

The date of separation can be a date earlier than the filing of the complaint. For example, if there is a physical separation the date one party moves out of the marital home is an acceptable date of separation. Alternatively, even if the parties continue to reside together, a date of separation can be established when one party makes it clear to the other party that the marriage is over by stating so clearly or even reducing it to writing. The party alleging separation will have to submit an affidavit certifying the date of separation. The other party has an opportunity to object and a hearing may be held if necessary to determine the appropriate date of separation. Accordingly, be sure that the other party is explicitly aware of your intentions, especially if you will continue to reside together and/or hold off on filing for divorce.

Pennsylvania allows a no-fault divorce on the basis of one year separation period. Separation is defined in Section 3103 of the Divorce Code as follows: “Cessation of cohabitation, whether living in the same residence or not. In the event a complaint in divorce is filed and served, it shall be presumed that the parties commenced to live separate and apart not later than the date that the complaint was served.” Cohabitation, though not specifically defined in the divorce code, is generally understood to be living and dwelling together as husband and wife with the mutual assumption of all marital rights, duties and obligations. It requires more than just remaining in the same house overnight or for the weekend or taking a week-long trip together. Any reconciliation between parties can negate a prior separation period. Specifically, if a party is pursuing a divorce on the grounds of separation, a reconciliation may result in a new date of separation date and hence a new one-year waiting period.

Case law has distinguished what actions/behavior will be considered a successful reconciliation, hence tolling a new period of separation, versus those actions/behavior that will not change the initial separation date. For example, isolated instances of sexual relations during a separation will not alone establish a reconciliation. Additionally, residing in the same home does not alone establish reconciliation. The court would examine the facts in each case and evaluate whether or not there was a full-blown resumption of the marital relationship. In Britton v. Britton, 400 Pa. Super. 43 (1990) a reconciliation was recognized when the reconciliation lasted three months, the parties resumed living together, ceased to maintain separate residences, jointly purchased a townhome, shared the same bedroom, engaged in sexual relations, shared a joint bank account and had a social life as husband and wife.

Last November the House voted for the passage of Bill 380 which proposes amending Section 3301(d) of the Divorce Code to allow divorce on the basis of separation for a one year period as opposed to the current law which requires a two year separation period. Presently House Bill 380 is in the Senate and still pending a decision as of May 2016. There are several reasons for reducing the waiting period for divorce according to supporters of the Bill. First, reducing the duration for divorce will reduce the turmoil for minor children. There is consensus in the psychological field that continued conflict of the parents is the primary influence on the well-being, or lack thereof, of the children. Second, longer divorces allow for additional litigation and prolonged emotional strain. The third reason offered in support of the bill is the lack of any economic benefit by continuing with a two year separation period. For example, any alimony award will generally be reduced by the period of support received while the divorce was pending such that there is no benefit to a longer separation period.

At this point, Pennsylvania has one of the longer waiting periods for divorce on the basis of separation. New York, Ohio, and Maryland require only one year of separation. New Jersey and Delaware only require six (6) months of separation. The Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) has played a major rule in pushing for the passage of the bill. According to the PBA, there has actually been a decrease in divorce since many neighboring states have allowed divorce after only a minimum period of separation. Additionally, a shorter separation period will allow the parties to move on with their lives quicker with less emotional and financial strain as well as promote the best interests of minor children in decreasing the period of uncertainty.

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Earlier this year a bill was introduced to the Pennsylvania General Assembly which would affect the Divorce Code. House Bill 380 proposes amending Section 3301(d) of the Divorce Code to allow divorce on the basis of separation for a one year period as opposed to the current law which requires a two year separation period. Representative Tara Toohil proposed the bill and cites several reasons for the change. First, reducing the duration for divorce will reduce the turmoil for minor children. There is consensus in the psychological field that continued conflict of the parents is the primary influence on the well-being, or lack thereof, of the children. Second, longer divorces allow for additional litigation and prolonged emotional strain. The third reason offered in support of the bill is the lack of any economic benefit by continuing with a two year separation period. For example, any alimony award will generally be reduced by the period of support received while the divorce was pending such that there is no benefit to a longer separation period.

Finally, Representative Toohil points out that all surrounding jurisdictions already allow for divorce on a shorter time frame. Specifically, New York, Ohio, and Maryland require only one year of separation. New Jersey and Delaware only require six (6) months of separation. The Pennsylvania Bar Association recently submitted a brief to the House Judiciary Committee in support of the bill. The brief also discusses that there has actually been a decrease in divorce since many neighboring states have allowed divorce after only a minimum period of separation. The final assertion is that there is absolutely no benefit to requiring a longer separation period. Instead, a shorter separation period will allow the parties to move on with their lives quicker with less emotional and financial strain as well as promote the best interests of minor children in decreasing the period of uncertainty.

Click here to read the stance of the PA Bar Association.

If you are separating from your spouse, there are various things that you should do or not do during this time:

1. You should freeze any joint credit card debts so that your spouse does not continue to increase debt in your name.

2. You should freeze joint bank accounts if you are not going to be living together. If you need some of the funds to live, it is a good idea not to take more than half and to leave half for your spouse to prevent litigation. Your spouse can and sometimes will wipe out the entire account forcing you into litigation.

3. You should figure out a budget for yourself best on how much you earn and how much you will expect to receive or pay in support so you can figure out how much you can afford when looking for a place to live. An attorney can help you figure out this amount.

4. You should collect your statements from all your accounts both debt and assets so you can establish what the values were at separation.

5. You should not drop your spouse or children from health insurance as you may be required to continue coverage during the divorce.

6. You should not change the beneficiaries on any insurance policies until after your divorce and only if there is no court order to maintain coverage.

7. You should pull your credit report so you do not have any surprises on what may or may not exist during the divorce.

8. You should gather other important documents, including your marriage certificate, your deed, car titles.

9. If you are struggling emotionally with the separation/divorce, you should engage a good therapist to help you through the process.

10. If you are expecting to receive support you should file once you know you are going to move.

11. If you expect to have custody, make sure you move locally or first obtain permission from the Court.

12. Take the personal property items that are most important to you as oftentimes it is very difficult or cost prohibitive to fight over personal property later.

13. If possible, talk to your spouse and try to come to terms on things as much as possible and consider mediation or collaborative law as an option.

14. Hire an attorney who specializes in divorce if you decide that you need legal assistance to help you with custody or support or if you decide that divorce is your next step.  You should not have expectations based on what happened with a friend or relative’s similar situation.

15. Remember to be civil with your spouse. It will be easier and less expensive if you can handle matters with a respectful and practical approach.

Potential reconciliation between parties going through a divorce can have an impact on the course of the divorce. Specifically, if a party is pursuing a divorce on the grounds of two-year separation, a reconciliation may result in a new date of separation date and hence a new two-year waiting period. Case law has distinguished what actions/behavior will be considered a successful reconciliation, hence tolling a new period of separation, versus those actions/behavior that will not change the initial separation date. Separation for the purposes of divorce is defined as the “complete cessation of any and all cohabitation.” Cohabitation, though not specifically defined in the divorce code, is generally understood to be living and dwelling together as husband and wife with the mutual assumption of all marital rights, duties and obligations. It requires more than just remaining in the same house overnight or for the weekend or taking a week long trip together. This is still true even if the parties engage in sexual relations. Instances of sexual relations during a separation will not alone establish a reconciliation. The public policy of the Commonwealth is to encourage a reconciliation where possible and so it is reluctant to punish parties for unsuccessful reconciliations by causing the period of separation to have to start again because of a failed attempt.

In Thomas v. Thomas, 335 Pa. Super. 41 (1984), the Court expressed its agreement with neighboring states who treat the issue of reconciliation similarly. For example, in a New Jersey case the court held that a four week trial reconciliation period did not defeat the previously established separation date (Brittner v. Brittner, 124 N.J. Super. 259 (1973)). In Delaware, the law provides that any reconciliation attempts that occur prior to the 30 days immediately preceding the hearing on divorce will not affect the initial date of separation. Accordingly, attempts at reconciliation may not necessarily change the date of separation for the purposes of the divorce. The court would examine the facts of the reconciliation to determine if it was a full-blown resumption of the marital relationship which would potentially result in a different date of separation or alternatively, treat the failed attempt as further evidence that the marriage is irretrievably broken and the divorce should proceed on the initial separation date. In Britton v. Britton, 400 Pa. Super. 43 (1990) a reconciliation did defeat the period of separation when the reconciliation lasted three months, the parties resumed living together, ceased to maintain separate residences, jointly purchased a townhome, shared the same bedroom, engaged in sexual relations, shared a joint bank account and had a social life as husband and wife.

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Reunification counseling is a process meant to rebuild a relationship. Often times, reunification counseling will be used in the context of a custody dispute to reintroduce and/or reinforce the relationship between a parent and their child. There are several reasons why reunification counseling may become necessary. It could be a situation where one parent was not involved in the child’s life for a long period of time and so some type of counseling becomes helpful in assisting both parties ease back into a normal relationship. Alternatively, a course of reunification counseling can be used after a sudden change in relationship has caused damage or anger. For example, a child may not understand why his or her parents have separated and may show anger or resentment towards the parent who moved out of the home. Or perhaps, it is not even the child initiating the feelings of resentment or anger, but the other parent who then projects those same feelings onto the 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 a concern when dealing with teenagers. A custody order forcing visitation with the other parent may serve a temporary goal but ultimately result in lifelong resentment once the child is over 18 and free to make his or her own choices. It may be more beneficial to be patient on the front end in exchange for a healthy relationship that has the potential to last past their “childhood” years. 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 reunification therapy as an option to get the relationship back on the right foot again.

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Most parties pursuing divorce will choose to proceed with no-fault grounds for divorce. A no-fault divorce simply means there has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. There are two different ways to establish an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage under the Divorce Code. First, both parties may consent to the divorce after 90 days from when the complaint was filed and served. This is referred to as a 90-day mutual consent divorce. Alternatively, if one party won’t consent, the other party can move forward after the parties have been “separated” for two years. This is referred to as a 2-year separation divorce.

Separation does not mean the parties have to live separately. Many parties still reside in the same home but are considered to be “separate” based on the definition provided by the Divorce Code. Section 3103 of the Divorce Code defines “Separate and apart” as follows: “Cessation of cohabitation, whether living in the same residence or not. In the event a complaint in divorce is filed and served, it shall be presumed that the parties commenced to live separate and apart not later than the date that the complaint was served.”

Accordingly, the date the divorce complaint is filed will generally be accepted as the date of separation regardless of whether the parties continue to live together or not. However, the date of separation can be an even earlier date. For example, the date one party does move out of the marital home is usually a clear indication the marriage is over, and hence, an acceptable date of separation. Alternatively, even if the parties continue to reside together, a date of separation can be established when one party makes it clear to the other party that the marriage is over by stating so clearly or even reducing it to writing. The party alleging 2-year separation will have to submit an affidavit certifying the date of separation. The other party has an opportunity to object and a hearing may be held if necessary to determine the appropriate date of separation. Accordingly, be sure that the other party is keenly aware of your intended separation, especially if you will continue to reside together and/or hold off on filing for divorce.