40 Years Of Pennsylvania’s Divorce Code

This winter, the Family Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association used its annual meeting to celebrate something special — the 40 year anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Divorce Code. It is amazing to compare our state’s current divorce laws to those that were in place prior to 1980.

What Was Divorce Like in the 1980s

Prior to 1980, Pennsylvania’s divorce laws were very similar to those that were in place in colonial times. We were one of three states that required an innocent spouse to prove their ex was at fault and the innocent spouse deserved a divorce.

The “innocent” spouse would have the burden of proving one of the following things:

  • Adultery — Their spouse cheated on them.
  • Abandonment — Their spouse left them, for no good reason, for over a year.
  • Cruelty — Their spouse treats them in a way that threatens their health or life. Domestic violence is a form of cruelty.
  • Bigamy — Their spouse never divorced his or her previous spouse.
  • Imprisonment — Their spouse is going to jail for at least two years.
  • Humiliation — Their spouse’s actions have led them to suffer such indignities as to make life intolerable.

The “innocent” spouse would need to provide evidence to back up their claim, and air the couple’s dirty laundry in court.

Under our state’s current no-fault divorce law, the courts can award a divorce to any couple that wants one, without either party having to take the blame for the split. There is no finger-pointing, so no-fault divorces are typically less messy, and therefore faster and cheaper.

In order to encourage such judicial efficiency, many states have repealed their traditional fault-based divorce laws in favor of no-fault laws. Pennsylvania’s fault-based divorce laws are still on the books, they are just not used very often.

Adopting the Divorce Code also meant making major changes to our state’s alimony laws. Prior to the adoption of the Divorce Code, we were the only state in the nation that forbade alimony and post-divorce distribution of marital property.

17 Factors of Deciding Alimony in a Divorce

Today, Pennsylvania judges use statutory guidelines called the “17 Factors” when deciding how much alimony to award in a divorce, what kind of spousal support, how long it will last, and the form of payment. These components are:

  • The income and earning capacity of both spouses
  • The condition of each party (physical, mental, and emotional) and their relative ages
  • How much income each party can expect after the divorce, as well as benefits such as medical, insurance, and retirement benefits
  • Any inheritance either spouse received or expects to receive
  • How long the marriage lasted
  • The amount that either spouse contributed so that the other spouse could get an education, training or increased earning power
  • If either spouse is raising a young child, how much doing so will impact his or her ability to earn income and increase that spouse’s expenses and financial obligations
  • The standard of living the parties enjoyed during the marriage
  • The level of education of each spouse and how long the spouse receiving alimony needs to complete education or training to acquire sufficient employment
  • The debts and assets of each spouse compared to the other
  • The assets each party had before the marriage
  • Homemaker contribution by either spouse
  • Each spouse’s needs compared to the other
  • Marital misconduct of either party until the time of separation. Only abuse will be considered by the court after the parties separated.
  • How the alimony award will affect the federal, state, and local tax liability of each party
  • The ability of either party to meet his or her reasonable needs with the property the spouse will retain after the divorce
  • The inability of either spouse to be financially self-supporting through employment.

After evaluating all 17 factors, the court determines if it is appropriate to award spousal support. The judge must give his or her reasons for awarding alimony, and justify the amount.