When will my Pennsylvania divorce automatically go through?
Because contesting a divorce in Pennsylvania after a one-year separation requires no lawyer and no money, no divorce is ever automatic. In a low-cost, simple, uncontested, no-fault divorce, just refusing to sign stops the process.
The simple, quick answer is NEVER. When Pennsylvania’s no-fault divorce law went into effect in June of 1980, the news media (newspapers, TV, and radio) reported that once a couple was separated over three years, the divorce would “go through automatically”. (By the way, that three-year period of separation was soon reduced to two and, at the end of 2016, reduced to where it is now at just one year.) How many of you are surprised to find out that the media was just plain wrong? We are in the United States of America and we have both a U.S. and Pennsylvania constitution to protect our rights. One of those rights is to have our day in Court if we are sued in divorce (or any other legal action). That alone should tell you the automatic divorce is a fairy tale.
Here is what our law really says: If you have been “separate and apart” for every single day of at least the last twelve months and you file a divorce action and your spouse does not defend or contest, the divorce can be granted without your spouse actually signing anything. However, our law also makes it extremely simple and cheap for your spouse to contest. How? First, to try to get that type of divorce, you must see a local, full-service divorce attorney with around $3500.00. The divorce action will be filed in your home county and your lawyer will then have to arrange to have your spouse served (handed the divorce papers in person). You cannot, under law, serve your spouse, nor can any relative or employee of yours or of your spouse. Typically, that means your lawyer will use some of your money to pay the sheriff or a constable to find your spouse and hand the divorce documents to your spouse. This is where you will begin to hold your breath waiting to see what happens next.
Once your lawyer is informed that your spouse has been served, the lawyer is required by law to mail your spouse two documents. One is called an Important Notice. It tells your spouse that there are 20 days to file a contest. The other document is called a Counter-Affidavit (which translates into “Affidavit Against the Divorce”). That Affidavit has four sentences on it with a box before each which your spouse can check: 1. The marriage is not broken. 2. We have not been separated that long. 3. I want money. 4. I want things. Even if checking any of those boxes makes no sense or would be a lie, should your spouse check any of them and mail it to the Court, your case is contested and stopped dead in its tracks… all for the cost of a stamp. Your spouse needs no lawyer to do that and can do it for no reason other than to make the divorce stop and become difficult and VERY expensive to continue. That’s right. Your spouse can stop your divorce action just to be mean or difficult…or to delay your getting married to anyone else and spend next to nothing to do it; however, if you file that expensive divorce through a local law firm and your spouse does not file that affidavit, your divorce is likely to be granted.
So, if your spouse will not sign, why can’t you get a LOW-COST, simple, uncontested, no-fault divorce? Here is the answer: One of the things that allows a divorce to be low-cost (like the kind I handle for $219.00 total) is that they are filed in a county with very low filing fees (Court costs). Each of Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties has its own rules and fees. Quite a few charge between three and four hundred dollars in filing fees. That is way more than my total charge of $219 (which INCLUDES what I must pay the Court). Of course, this means that I would file your divorce in a county where neither you nor your spouse resides (which is perfectly legal for a simple, uncontested, no-fault divorce). That low-cost Court requires that both parties to the divorce sign no matter how long they may have been separated and I tell every client that BEFORE she or he begins. Accordingly, those divorces are not automatic either. (For you legal scholars out there, the explanation for this requirement can be found in a Pennsylvania Superior Court case, Danz v. Danz, 2008 PA Super 70.)
I would really appreciate it if everyone contemplating a divorce would read this article or otherwise be aware of the fact that NO divorce is ever automatic, but I know that people will continue to read badly written, totally unresearched nonsense on the internet idiotically stating that if you are separated long enough, your divorce will be automatic. If it’s on the internet, it must be true, right? Unfortunately, there seem to be folks out there who actually believe that. Their parents probably convinced them at a young and tender age that bedtime fairy tales were true-life accounts from the days of long ago when animals could talk to us.
If you want to be divorced, you have to begin. No matter how many years you wait, it will never be “automatic”. That, ladies and gents, is a fact.