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Short Answer: Ever since Pennsylvania’s no-fault law became effective in 1980, Master’s hearings have been eliminated and no court appearance of any kind is required for a simple, uncontested, no-fault divorce.

Full Answer: In 1977, I began offering low-cost divorce services, but this was before no-fault went into effect in June of 1980. So, those clients were required to file a fault divorce action and grounds for the divorce were required. Our broadest grounds for a fault divorce are indignities. That compares with one may hear on TV, incompatibility. The indignities divorce complaint stated that the defendant offered such indignities to the person of the plaintiff, the innocent and injured spouse, as to make the plaintiff’s life burdensome and condition intolerable.

For an uncontested, fault divorce, a brief hearing would be scheduled where testimony would be heard by a Divorce Master, a lawyer appointed by the court for that simple process. (Such hearings could not be assigned to a judge as they would take too much time away from a judge’s schedule which was typically overloaded with more complicated matters.) Only 15-20 minutes were set aside for a Master’s hearing and, with careful planning by the plaintiff’s lawyer, such hearings could be reduced to about 5 minutes. The other party, the defendant, would be notified of the time and place of the hearing but was expected not to attend (or the case would then be contested and there would be no hearing).

For uncontested indignities grounds, very basic allegations of bad behavior were sufficient. One did not have to lie…unless one was married to a saint (in which case one would be unlikely to file for divorce). A court reporter would record the testimony and provide it to the judge with the Master’s recommendation that the divorce be granted. The main problem with uncontested fault divorces was their expense. Getting a lawyer into court, even briefly, was expensive; moreover, having to testify against one’s spouse was uncomfortable and unpleasant and was likely to mean taking time off work.

In January of 1980, Pennsylvania’s no-fault divorce rules were published and became effective in June of that year. In January, I immediately went to the law library to read the rules and could not quite believe my eyes when it became obvious that no Master’s hearing was required! Because of the Master’s hearing requirement for uncontested fault divorces, I had to limit my advertising (all in newspapers as that was pre-internet) to my home county and nearby ones. After all, how far would one travel to save on legal fees? Under the no-fault rules, I could advertise statewide in every county and town as my clients would never have to travel anywhere. Hand-in-hand with there being no hearing AND no grounds, I no longer needed to interview clients in my office, so travel was – and still is – completely eliminated.

To my knowledge, Pennsylvania is the first and only jurisdiction (state) to eliminate court appearances for simple, uncontested, no-fault divorces. That makes divorces more expensive everywhere else as even if the court appearance is very brief, it still amounts to a morning or afternoon away from the office for a lawyer. Time away from the office is costly for lawyers and clients, accordingly, were charged for that time.

Early on in 1980, in an apparent effort to help lawyers justify higher fees, a number of counties (about 6 or 7, mostly in the eastern part of the state), continued to require court appearances for simple, uncontested, no-fault cases. It took a couple of years, but our State Supreme Court caught on to that money grab and changed the law making it clear that no court appearance of any kind would be permitted. And that’s what we have today: No more Master’s hearings or court appearances of any type in simple, uncontested, no-fault divorces. Perhaps even better yet, the law further simplified the process by proactively allowing such divorces to be filed in any Pennsylvania county that the couple chose. Because all counties charge different fees just to file the documents, lawyers could shop for the lowest cost counties in which to file such divorces even if neither spouse resided there. As long as one party resided in the Commonwealth (State) of Pennsylvania, any Pennsylvania county could take the case. Doing so on behalf of my clients keeps my total charges the lowest one can find.