Breaking Down the Divorce Process Into 4 Easy Steps
Something we hear from many clients when they come for their initial consultation is that the divorce process can be overwhelming and confusing.
While every divorce is different, all divorces can be broken down into four main steps: (1) Initiation, (2) Discovery, (3) Economics, and (4) Divorce. Here is what to expect as you make your way through the process.
In order to begin the divorce process through the courts, one party will need to file a Divorce Complaint. Once a Divorce Complaint is filed, it then needs to be served to your spouse or their attorney.
Parties then need to establish “grounds” for divorce, meaning they have a legal reason to be divorced. Most commonly in Pennsylvania, parties will file for “No-Fault” divorce asserting that there are irreconcilable differences between them. While “Fault” based divorce still exists in Pennsylvania, it is almost never used and only in limited situations. Where a party files for no-fault divorce, grounds for divorce can be established in as little as 90 days or as long as a year.
While waiting for divorce grounds to be established, parties can be working on the Discovery phase of their case.
The purpose of the “Discovery” stage is to figure out the size and nature of the couples’ marital estate. Put more simply – what do they need to split up? There is a common misconception as to what is or is not considered “marital property.” Marital property in Pennsylvania is any property that is acquired between the date of marriage and date of separation. It does not matter which spouse an asset is titled to – if it was acquired during the marriage, it is marital and subject to equitable distribution, subject to certain exceptions.
So how do we acquire this information? The more information you can provide your attorney at the outset, the better they can guide you through the process. Be prepared with a list of assets such as bank accounts, retirement accounts, or mortgage statements. Once your attorney has an idea of what information they will need, they will send Discovery Requests to your spouse or their attorney. Discovery Requests typically include a list of questions for your spouse to answer called Interrogatories. They will also likely include Requests for Production of Documents, which will ask your spouse to provide various documents related to your marital estate – for example, a deed to the house, retirement account statements, credit card statements, etc.
Taking everything we learned in the Discovery stage – i.e. what do you need to split up – the next step is figuring out how to split it up. A common misconception is that everything will be divided equally. However, Pennsylvania courts practice equitable distribution. It is important to note that equitable is not the same as equal, meaning that one spouse may end up with a larger percentage of the marital estate. Pennsylvania courts look to a list of factors when determining how to distribute property such as the length of the marriage, age, and health of the parties, earning capacities, etc.
In order to distribute the marital estate, the parties – typically with help from their attorneys – will try to settle through negotiations. If the parties are unable to agree, they can seek court intervention as to how the property should be distributed.
Once all of the economic claims between the parties are settled, they can request a final divorce decree. When a judge signs the final decree, you are officially divorced.
For further guidance on the divorce process or for assistance with your specific case, please set up a consultation with a member of our Family Law team.
The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.