Either party to a Pennsylvania divorce action can take steps to delay a no-fault divorce. If the couple has been separated less than twelve months, if either one refuses, at the end of the ninety-day waiting period to sign the Affidavit of Consent required to complete that type of divorce, it will not move forward until both sign. After twelve consecutive months of separation, however, our law says that either party can force the divorce to completion. (BUT that does not apply to a LOW-COST, simple, uncontested, no-fault divorce. In THAT type of divorce, BOTH parties MUST sign no matter how long they may have been separated.) However, even in a full-price divorce through an expensive local law firm, and even after twelve months of separation, the defendant (the party being sued for divorce – the plaintiff is the party who filed the divorce) can delay the divorce by contesting.
How easy or expensive is it to contest a full-price divorce after over a year of separation? Very easy and very cheap. In such cases, after the defendant is served the divorce documents, the plaintiff’s lawyer is required by law to send the defendant two more documents by ordinary mail. One is called the Important Notice and it informs the defendant that a divorce has been filed and if contesting it is to be done, it must be contested in twenty days. The other document is called the Counter-Affidavit (which simply means “the affidavit against the divorce”). In essence, there are four statements on it, each with a box at the beginning which can be checked off. To paraphrase, the first states that the marriage is not broken, the second that the parties have not been separated over one year, the third that the defendant wants money and the fourth that the defendant wants property (real estate, personal property, money etc.) The defendant may choose any or all of them whether or not any are correct, accurate, honest or meaningful… it’s just a way to delay the divorce… maybe just to be mean, controlling or otherwise. Regardless of the defendant’s purpose in filing the Counter-Affidavit, to continue to force the divorce forward, the plaintiff’s lawyer will have to schedule a hearing in court for the issues to be decided by a judge. Setting aside courtroom time and paying the legal fees are very expensive, typically well into the thousands of dollars…and the defendant may not even bother to attend!
At that point, the plaintiff may need to delay the process until the necessary funds can be raised to continue. Some plaintiffs may be unable to ever raise the money or may decide that it is not worth it and choose to stay separated although still married.
And of course, the plaintiff may at any time and for any reason choose to proceed no further. Should that happen, the defendant can take steps to attempt to move the divorce forward. Then the plaintiff finds him or herself suddenly in the defendant’s shoes with the ability to take steps to make the divorce expensive for the defendant to move it along. Accordingly, as long as either party can afford it, a full-price (NOT a low-cost) no-fault divorce can eventually be forced through to a conclusion once the couple has been separated for over one year.
Filing the Counter-Affidavit is just one way of delaying and increasing the cost of a divorce. The defendant may hire a lawyer who could file all kinds of documents in a contest. They could have literally hundreds of pages and even require the plaintiff to spend thousands in legal fees to respond or otherwise act. Financial documents could be demanded. Meetings with the judge or court officials could be scheduled, sometimes months into the future. Contesting a divorce can easily take many, many thousands of dollars and months or even years of time and either party can do this.
Of course, in any type of divorce, low-cost or not, if the plaintiff has more important matters to which to attend, the divorce can be simply left alone with no progress to be made by either party. I have had many clients choose not to proceed at various points in the process and that is their own business, not mine. I am only the lawyer and it is not my job to press my client to proceed if, for any reason, they would rather not. I will send out a notice in such cases that if a divorce action is left unattended for over two years, the court is required by the state Supreme Court to officially terminate the action. If that happens and the plaintiff then decides to proceed, a whole new case must be undertaken. Most county courts, however, are very busy, and terminating stale actions is their lowest priority. I have had many cases still active (and not terminated) many years past the two-year deadline.
One final point: If the court decides that either party is purposely delaying a divorce action for no good reason (acting in “bad faith”), the court may impose sanctions (such as a fine) on that party, and, if that party is the plaintiff (who filed the divorce), the judge may throw the case out of court thereby requiring one party or the other to go to the expense of re-filing.