Tag Archives: topics of interest

Length of Separation in Divorce & Its Impact

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.

Complications While Same-Sex Marriage Is Banned in Pennsylvania

[Note: On May 20, 2014, Judge John E. Jones III of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania actually issued the decision in Whitehead v. Wolf, in which he ruled as he anticipated the U.S. Supreme Court would rule. In short, based on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, he determined that Pennsylvania could not justify its law banning same-sex marriages. He also entered an injunction against the enforcement of Pennsylvania’s law that was effective as of that date. The Commonwealth did not appeal so May 20, 2014 is the official date that Pennsylvania became part of the tidal wave of states across the nation that, willingly or not, recognized the legality of same-sex marriages.]


In Pennsylvania, same-sex marriage does not is against the law. Specifically, in the Domestic Relations Code, the legislature defines marriage as a “contract between one man and one woman” (Section 1102). Unlike its position on common-law marriage that was discussed in the previous post, it also has rejected the concept of comity, in which the laws of other states usually are recognized and respected. Instead, the legislature has invoked the “strong and longstanding public policy” exception to comity in Section 1704 of the Domestic Relations Code so that same-sex marriages, “even if valid where entered into,” are void here.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United   States v. Windsor, et. al. from June of this year may be the start of major changes throughout the country. Windsor dealt with the federal Defense of Marriage Act, in which Congress defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The case concerned two women who were married legally in Canada and then moved to New York, which recognized their marriage. The widowed spouse was the beneficiary in the Will, but the IRS forced her to pay the federal estate tax even though a spouse would have been exempt from this tax. With Ms. Windsor believing that she faced unequal treatment due to her gender, she filed the lawsuit that ended up in the Supreme Court. In what was a landmark decision to put it mildly, the Court found the federal definition of marriage unconstitutional, basing this decision mostly on due process grounds.

Marriage generally is a state-law issue. Windsor does not alter this but does affect federal rights and benefits of legally married spouses of the same gender. Changing the type of marriage found in the example in the previous post from a common-law marriage to a validly entered same-sex marriage, the couple who got married legally in Washington, D.C. can remain same-sex partners but no longer are considered spouses when they relocate in Pennsylvania.

While federal law usually supersedes state law, some issues – including marital and property rights – have been left to the states in most circumstances. This is where Windsor leaves many unanswered questions. The Social Security Administration made an effort to deal with this by issuing regulations after the Windsor decision. In the example, the SSA instructs the person who married in Washington, D.C. and then became a Pennsylvania resident to apply for benefits on the work record of her same-gender spouse when eligible because the marriage originally was valid.

Due to residency in Pennsylvania when she applies, the SSA currently will put a hold on the application, but the application does establish the protective filing date for benefits that may be paid later if the same-sex marriage that does not exist in Pennsylvania becomes valid again as it was when the couple resided in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, had the surviving partner stayed in Washington, D.C., she could receive benefits now.

Bankruptcy law also relies on state law to define numerous rights, including property rights during marriage. Pennsylvania allows people filing for bankruptcy to choose to use federal or state exemptions for property. When a married couple owns their property as tenants by the entireties, this effectively prevents a spouse from transferring any ownership interest to a third party and generally puts the property out of reach for creditors of only one spouse. If most debt belongs to one spouse, the couple may decide that only that spouse will file, using the state exemptions to protect their joint property. However, a tenancy by the entireties can exist only when there is a valid marriage. Pennsylvania, by declaring same-sex marriage void, prohibits a same-sex couple from owning property in this way. Once again, there is different treatment at this point under federal law and under state law for individuals who, but for their genders, would be in the same situation.

Estates also are affected by marital status. Pennsylvania law gives rights to a surviving spouse preventing this spouse from being disinherited due to a deceased spouse’s Will. However, a person who entered into a same-sex marriage prior to settling in Pennsylvania becomes a virtual stranger regarding estate rights when the other person dies – the individual would not have the rights of a spouse. Instead, a Will would need to identify the person and specifically leave property to him or her (although the survivor essentially receives any part of the estate as a friend, not a spouse).

Also, Windsor provided that, regardless of gender, Ms. Windsor was a spouse and would be treated the same as other spouses under federal estate tax law, dropping her tax rate to zero percent as a result. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s inheritance-tax rate for a spouse is also zero percent, but, due to a same-sex marriage being void, an unrelated person of the same gender receiving property through a Will falls into the 15-percent tax bracket. In each of these situations, we see different treatment solely due to gender. Such issues will remain as long as same-sex marriage is rejected in Pennsylvania.

Next year could be a watershed year for Pennsylvania marriage law due to numerous court cases that involve possible recognition of same-sex marriages. A change could come soon after June when Whitewood v. Wolf, which directly attacks Pennsylvania’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage, is scheduled to be heard in a federal court in Pennsylvania. The ban on same-sex marriage and its resulting complications easily could be history in Pennsylvania before 2014 ends. Time – and, most likely, the courts – will tell.

The Status of Common-Law Marriage in Pennsylvania

Until January 2, 2005, a woman and a man in Pennsylvania could consider marrying each other without any type of ceremony or written documentation. There was not even any requirement that they lived together for any amount of time, despite a common belief to the contrary. Basically, if there was no reason why they could not marry, such as being too young or being currently married to someone else, they basically needed to exchange words in the present tense – without even needing witnesses – showing that they intended to establish the relationship of wife and husband, and a common-law marriage was created.

A marriage created in this way could create difficulties when one had to prove the date of the marriage or, even, its very existence. As a result, courts made an issue of the problems with marriages that could exist without any documentation. A 1998 decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made clear that the common-law marriage certainly was disfavored but that the legislature would have to act to abolish the practice. Then, in 2003, due to the lack of legislative action, the Commonwealth Court took it upon itself to act in place of the legislature and decided that common-law marriage no longer existed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, all that this really did was to create more confusion.

With a Pennsylvania court saying one thing and the legislature saying nothing, the government needed to clarify what the law really was. Finally, the legislature passed a statute preventing anyone from attempting to create a common-law marriage beginning with the day after New Year’s Day in 2005. This did not invalidate such unions that took place through January 1, 2005, thereby ensuring that a possible common-law marriage that either the man or the woman involved asserted had occurred prior to the cutoff date still could prove troublesome. However, even with Pennsylvania’s abolition of the right to enter into a common-law marriage, problems caused by this concept remain.

Beyond the difficulties presented by a possible common-law marriage created in Pennsylvania prior to the beginning of 2005, there are problems because some states continue to permit a woman and a man to enter into this type of marriage at this point. They include Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire (for inheritance purposes only), Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah (which does add the requirement of an administrative order regarding the marriage), and Washington, D.C.  A common-law marriage from any of these states eventually could have an impact in Pennsylvania. While the reason often is thought to be the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the federal Constitution, this is not involved. Instead the concept of comity is the cause.

Through comity, states generally recognize and respect the laws of other states as long as the law is not deemed offensive to public policy in a particular state. Since Pennsylvania has long favored the institution of marriage (between men and women), it continues to recognize common-law marriage, despite the problems with proof that led to practice being abolished here, as long as the marriage occurred in one of the states where it was valid. Although it could not be created here, public policy in Pennsylvania favors marriage so it remains valid as long as it was valid from its beginning.

Therefore, a woman and a man could enter into a common-law marriage in Washington, D.C. in 2011 and then move to Pennsylvania. If the marriage was valid in the District of Columbia, the comity doctrine continues its validity here.

This means that these spouses will have the same rights and obligations that other married couples have in Pennsylvania. They will remain married until death – or until a divorce. While entering a common-law marriage has none of the formalities of a ceremonial marriage, its ending can occur only in the same way that any other marriage can end. Because a divorce is required while both spouses are alive, there can be equitable distribution of marital property. Meanwhile, the death of one of the spouses leaves the other with the same inheritance rights as any other surviving spouse in Pennsylvania has.

In addition, because the marriage is valid, there are rights to payments from the Social Security Administration that can vest when a spouse retires if they have been married for at least ten years. A common-law marriage also affects a bankruptcy. If one spouse basically has all of the debt while property, such as a residence, is owned as tenants by the entireties in Pennsylvania, then the bankruptcy law can be used to protect the house, with only the spouse with the debts filing for bankruptcy to get a fresh start by having these debts discharged. The marriage may have begun elsewhere, but – by the time that the couple has arrived in Pennsylvania – the fact that it was a common-law marriage in the beginning is of no consequence, regardless of Pennsylvania’s abolishing the right to enter into such marriages years ago.

In the next post, we will see another married couple that relocates from Washington, D.C. to Pennsylvania but finds the consequences much different. Instead of a common-law marriage, we’ll look at a couple that has gone through a ceremonial marriage after obtaining a marriage license, making the marriage much easier to prove. This won’t matter once they move to Pennsylvania, where they will be treated as if they virtually are strangers to one another. Their “problem” is that they happen to share not only their lives but also the same gender. The evolving area of law of same-sex marriage and its current (and possible future) implications in our changing society will be examined.