As the song goes, there may be “fifty ways to leave your lover,” but none of them will constitute a legal separation in Pennsylvania. A legal separation may only be decreed by a court, through a written order, which sets forth the specific terms under which a married couple will live separately. Pennsylvania does not recognize legal separations and will not issue such an order. Pennsylvania merely uses a couple’s separation period as a “grounds” for divorce.
Currently, Pennsylvania recognizes three ways (“grounds”) for a couple to divorce: (1) through consensual means, i.e., Section 3301(c) of the Divorce Code, which requires no court appearances; (2) through the filing of an Affidavit by the Plaintiff stating the parties have lived “separate and apart” for a period of two years or more,” i.e, Section 3301(d) of the Divorce Code, which again does not require a court appearance; or (3) though the inclusion of fault grounds in the divorce complaint. Fault grounds may include adultery, indignities, or abuse, and are governed under Section 3301(a) of the Divorce Code. This type of divorce requires a court appearance, as the couple must present testimony to assert/defend the fault ground/s.
In Pennsylvania, living “separate and apart” does not require the couple to establish two separate households. For financial reasons, many couples continue to live in one household pending the expiration of their mandatory two year separation period. To constitute living “separate and apart,” a couple must cease acting as a married couple. For example, they should cease all marital relations, stop taking vacations together, and stop attending social functions together.
If the parties have joint bills and wish to live separately for the statutory two-year period, it is always recommended that they do so by setting forth, in writing, with clear and specific terms, who will be responsible for the marital debts, as well as, the monthly bills and maintenance surrounding the marital residence. This writing is known as an “Interim Separation Agreement.” It does not set forth a final distribution of marital assets. This Agreement should not be confused with a Marital Settlement Agreement, which does set forth the final division of marital assets between the parties and finalizes any and all economic claims existing between the parties.
Cara A. Boyanowski concentrates her practice in the field of domestic law and wills and estates. As a domestic law practitioner, she represents clients in simple and complex divorce, support, custody, alimony, step-parent adoptions, name change and same-sex divorce and custody matters. She works out of Obermayer’s Harrisburg, PA office and can be reached at 717-234-5315 or at Cara.Boyanowski@obermayer.com.