In 1980, Pennsylvania’s Divorce Code underwent a monumental change. Previously, one spouse had to prove that the other spouse was at fault for the marriage’s breakdown due to such reasons as adultery or indignities (a course of conduct making a spouse’s condition intolerable and life burdensome). She or he also needed to be the “injured and innocent” spouse, meaning that the other spouse was the primary cause of marital discord. 1980 brought “no-fault” divorce, which could be based on the parties’ consent that the marriage was irretrievably broken or based on the length of separation due to the marriage’s irretrievable breakdown. Because the length of separation seems likely to change in the near future, this is the focus here.
In all no-fault cases, one party claims the marriage is irretrievably broken – marital difficulties have caused an estrangement leaving no reasonable likelihood of the parties getting back together. When one spouse won’t consent to a divorce, the no-fault ground focuses on living “separate and apart” for a certain length of time. A separation is a fact-based determination. There is a presumption that the parties separated on the date the divorce complaint was served, but a spouse can choose a different date if the facts support it. Separation doesn’t require living in different residences – living separate lives is what matters. The end of sexual relations and financial independence are factors that help to prove separation. Communicating the intent to separate also is an important fact.
A not-too-uncommon question is how sex between separated spouses affects a period of separation. Involvement one time shouldn’t end the original separation. However, occasional intercourse could be an important fact causing a judge to decide the separation has ceased. An attempt to reconcile for a month or two could end a separation, too. If the spouses break up yet again, the separation starts all over again.
The ability to obtain a divorce due to the length of separation has important implications. Before no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania, only the “injured and innocent spouse” could obtain a divorce. No-fault grounds mean that even a spouse whose behavior causes the marriage to fall apart can obtain the divorce. Additionally, if a no-fault ground exists for granting the divorce, then a fault-based divorce cannot be obtained. The length of separation required can come into play here. If one spouse won’t consent and the parties haven’t been separated long enough for a non-consensual no-fault divorce, then the spouse who files might seek a divorce based on fault under these circumstances. However, when the required separation period becomes shorter, fewer spouses will have to choose to pursue a fault ground here – if the length of separation is reduced to one year in Pennsylvania, the difficulty of pursuing a divorce on a fault ground would make it less attractive and necessary as the path to obtaining a divorce.
A divorce based on the length of separation affects property and related issues, too. Although the following does not directly deal with the issue of length, spouses who begin living separate and apart have a date of separation. This matters because property acquired after this date is presumed to be non-marital and does not automatically become subject to equitable distribution. (An important point about presumptions in law is that they are not rules without exceptions; instead, when someone gets the benefit of a presumption, the other party can rebut it with evidence overcoming the presumption.) A longer period of separation generally will mean the parties will claim more property as being acquired after the separation and, therefore, not subject to equitable distribution.
A divorce case often involves issues beyond the divorce itself, including property distribution, custody, and support. At one time, divorces in Allegheny County generally would be subject to automatic bifurcation, which meant that the divorce was granted before the remaining claims were resolved. In 2005, the Divorce Code was revamped so that bifurcation became the exception. For the exception to apply in a divorce based on the length of separation, a party has to establish specific grounds for the divorce as well as compelling circumstances favoring bifurcation for the marriage to end before economic claims are decided. The court wants to see that the dependent spouse, in particular, receives economic protection during a bifurcated divorce.
While different counties may be more likely to allow bifurcation, it should be remembered that the statute doesn’t favor bifurcation. Therefore, a party in a divorce based on length of separation could have to wait for the required separation period to pass and then wait even longer for other claims to be decided before receiving a divorce decree. If the period of living separate and apart becomes one year, this should result in a shorter period overall for a decree in divorce even without bifurcation.
A final note about changes in the length of separation: the last change occurred in 1988 and affected any separation that began after February 12th of that year. If you separated on February 13th or later, you had to wait two years while a separation that began on February 12th still was subject to a three-year separation. Whether this approach would be used again isn’t known yet. However, it is something to think about if you’re considering a possible separation and divorce right now.