Two people marry for a variety of reasons, many noble and some otherwise, probably with a long-range view of togetherness — maybe that even includes children. However, a significant number of marriages will sadly not endure and end in divorce. As I always tell people, “No one knows what goes on between two people.” For some, divorce is a tragic reminder of a perceived failure and for others, it is a relief and opportunity to start over — a fresh start. We live in a world that prioritizes married couples, that is opposite-sex married couples, but the cultural and legal landscape has changed and members of the LGBTQ-plus community are now free to marry and, therefore, free to divorce.
It is relatively easy to get married, but divorce takes time and strategizing. If the other spouse does not agree to the divorce, there is a waiting period of one or two years, depending on when the parties separated. The date of separation (DOS) is important in Pennsylvania as it affects the divorce process when disagreement exists and how marital and non-marital property are characterized and equitably distributed between the two parties. Sometimes a prenuptial agreement is very helpful during the divorce, but keep in mind that it needs to be reevaluated by an attorney to ensure its validity.
Entering the divorce phase of a marriage often means significant emotional and financial stress. The following are some of the issues that need to be addressed: (1) Housing – where the spouses are going to live, i.e., in the same residence or will one move out; (2) Children – if there are children, their care and support is a priority; (3) Money – how much money does the couple have and how are the bills going to be paid; (4) Property – what property does the couple have, separately or together, and how is marital property going to be apportioned. Property includes a marital residence, pensions and investments, antiques and art, vehicles, pets and much else. One couple might live in a rental apartment with no children, one cat and own very little in terms of assets. Another couple might have big pensions, live in an expensive mortgaged home and have children who are in private school. In other words, no marriage is alike; therefore, no divorce is alike.
The only thing shared by all is that divorce is a legal mechanism in a court of law that releases two people from the bonds of matrimony. It is possible to obtain a simple, no-fault divorce, but more often a divorce matter is rarely simple and can be a very expensive. If you cannot afford an attorney, legal aid is available if you qualify or perhaps a relative or friend can loan you the money or pay the attorney for you. Each marriage is unique and no one can predict on the wedding day how a couple will navigate the world. Divorce statistics are often the topic of barbeque get-togethers or private conversations because there are so many in the contemporary social landscape. Coupling and family formation have evolved so that two individuals can live together as unmarried cohabitants, sometimes having children, but marriage is legally protected.
Below are some basic notes on divorce:
1. If you are considering filing for divorce or have been served with a divorce complaint already filed by your spouse, consult with an experienced family law attorney to get some basic advice. What may seem like a “simple” divorce, after consultation with an attorney, may be more involved.
2. If you and your spouse are separated and living in different states, it might be helpful to consult with an attorney in each state to consider where you are most benefited in filing for divorce. Pennsylvania requires that at least one party has resided in the Commonwealth for six months or longer and the time period between the date of marriage (DOM) and the date of separation (DOS) is very important in terms of determining what is marital property.
3. If you cannot afford an attorney, contact your local county or state bar association lawyer referral and information service. They might connect you to a participating lawyer at a reduced rate and/or local legal aid organizations. Be very wary of advertisements in local papers for divorce document preparation by non-lawyers. Again, it is strongly recommended that you consult with a licensed attorney. And do not use the same lawyer as your spouse, no matter how tempting the offer might seem. Get your own independent lawyer!
4. If domestic violence happens to you or your children, call 9-1-1 and be sure to get a police report and call your attorney. If you do not have an attorney or the attorney is not available and it is an emergency, go to your local family court or criminal justice center. In Philadelphia for example, go to the Domestic Violence Unit at Family Court, 1501 Arch Street, 8th Floor, Monday to Friday (opens at 8:00 AM) or to the Criminal Justice Center Emergency Protection from Abuse, 1301 Filbert Street, Room B-03, which is open Monday – Friday overnight from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and 24 hours on weekends and holidays. Also, there are safe houses/shelters available for you and your children and some might accept pets too.
5. Consult with an experienced family attorney. Do not hesitate to seek mental health services if you are not able to function and feel helpless or overwhelmed, and if you have religious concerns, consult with your spiritual advisor.