Before a divorce can occur, there must be a valid marriage. In order to be considered married in Pennsylvania, a civil or religious ceremony must take place and a marriage license must be obtained. Additionally, before January 1, 2005, there was another way in Pennsylvania to be considered married: common law marriage. Common law marriage was an informal marriage where both parties simply expressed the present intent to be married and held themselves out as married to the community. While no marriage after January 1, 2005, can be considered the common law in Pennsylvania, common law marriages entered into prior to that date are valid. Regardless of which type of marriage, after spouses are considered validly married, then the divorce can occur.
As a threshold requirement for filing a divorce in Pennsylvania, one or both parties to the divorce must have lived in Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to filing the divorce complaint. In the divorce complaint, a spouse must allege grounds for divorce. These grounds can be either no-fault or fault. A no-fault divorce is geared toward preserving the emotional state of both spouses and focuses on the marriage being broken, but no one, in particular, broke it. Fault-based divorces, however, are awarded to the “innocent and injured spouse” when the other spouse has: willfully deserted the marriage for more than a year, committed adultery, endangered the life or health of the other spouse, entered into a polygamous marriage, been sentenced to prison for two or more years, or “offered such indignities to the innocent and injured spouse as to render that spouse’s condition intolerable and life burdensome.” While some people may find this emotion-driven fault divorce cathartic, it can be more costly and not yield any tangible benefit.
In addition to traditional divorce, legal and religious annulments are an alternative way to dissolve a marriage. While a divorce is a memorialization that the marriage occurred and is over, an annulment is a legal declaration that the marriage never happened. Spouses can be annulled in the following situations: when either party had an existing spouse at the time of the marriage, when the parties are blood relatives within a certain degree, when either party could not consent because of a mental defect or other related reason, when either spouse is less than sixteen years of age and lacks the consent of a parent or the court to marry, where either party was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, when either party was at the time of the marriage incurably impotent and the other spouse was unaware of this fact, and when either party entered into the marriage as a result of fraud, duress, coercion, or force.