Many Pennsylvania couples may choose to remain legally married but live separate lives. In these cases, a legal separation is a good option, but separating from your spouse isn't so straightforward in Pennsylvania. Since there is technically no “separation” legal status for couples in Pennsylvania, separating from your spouse can be a nuanced, complex process.
This guide to legal separation in Pennsylvania explains what couples looking to live “separate and apart” need to know about separation, divorce, property division, and child support.
What Does It Mean to Be Legally Separated in Pennsylvania?
Couples in Pennsylvania cannot be “legally separated” because there is no legal status for separated but still married couples. If a couple wants to separate and have it enforced by the law, they must be eligible for and obtain a divorce. That sounds pretty cut and dry, but there are ways around it.
The Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Section 3103 does state, for example, that a couple can be “separate and apart.” It means that they have stopped cohabitating but can still reside in the residence. If the couple sleeps in different bedrooms, eats meals separately, no longer entertains guests together, and ends sexual relations, they may be considered “separate but apart.” The two parties become more like roommates living in the same household, leading separate lives even though they still live under the same roof.
“Separate and apart” isn't an enforceable legal status but rather a definition to help establish grounds for divorce. To be eligible for divorce in Pennsylvania, there's a minimum separation period of either 90 days or one year, depending on whether the divorce is mutual.
Legal Separation vs. Divorce in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, separation is not the same as divorce. A couple can be separated but still technically married. Couples that separate may wish to create some sort of agreement that states the terms of the separation. This separation agreement, also known as a postnuptial agreement, can become a legally binding contract if it's in writing and both parties sign it.
Divorce, on the other hand, is ending the bonds of matrimony. If two married people both consent to a divorce, there's a mandatory waiting period of 90 days before it can become legal. Usually, negotiating property division, child support, and alimony takes longer than 90 days. If one party does not agree to the divorce, then the couple must live apart for at least one year before the other party has the grounds to file for divorce.
What Is a Separation Agreement in Pennsylvania?
A husband and wife can enter into a negotiated contract specifying the terms of their separation, including the rights and responsibilities of each party. Signing and entering into this contract doesn't grant the couple a legal “separated” status—because that doesn't exist in Pennsylvania. If each party signs the contract, however, a court can enforce its terms just like any other signed contract.
In many cases, a separation agreement can become the basis for divorce settlement later on. This agreement isn't required for a couple to be considered “separate and apart,” but it's a good document to have so that each party can set their expectations.
Separation agreements cover issues such as:
- Property division: You and your spouse can decide who stays in the marital home if you decide to no longer live in the same household. If one of you moves, you should determine if that party must continue to contribute to mortgage payments or necessary upkeep. You should also decide who gets to keep which belongings, such as cars or electronics.
- Arrangements for child care and visitation: If you and your spouse have minor children, you should decide on custody and visitation rights. You may also want to discuss child care and how much each of you contributes to expenses for your child's care.
- Support payments if one spouse cannot support themselves alone: In Pennsylvania, a spouse can get either Alimony Pendente Lite (APL) or spousal support, depending on whether the divorce process has started or not. The amount of support paid by one spouse to another will depend on each person's income and expenses. Pennsylvania's Consolidated Statutes, Chapter 37 defines alimony and the criteria for granting it.
You and your spouse can draw up your own separation agreement if you wish, but many of these issues are complex, like knowing the difference between APL and spousal support. Even if you're not ready to file for divorce, you can still seek out a Pennsylvania divorce attorney to help you create your separation agreement to ensure you and your spouse have a reasonable arrangement.
Legal Separation in Pennsylvania with Children
In Pennsylvania, parents are obligated to support their children, divorced or not. When you separate or get a divorce, paying child support is, therefore, mandatory. There are child support calculation guidelines that the courts use to determine the amount of child support needed. If you create a separation agreement with your spouse, the child support amounts shouldn't be lower than what's stated in these guidelines.
You and your spouse can also work out a custody and visitation schedule during your separation. Pennsylvania courts generally encourage joint custody as much as possible so that each parent can still be an active participant in their child's life. You and your spouse can decide when your child will stay with each of you and plan for school vacations, holidays, and birthdays. Keep in mind that when making a custody and visitation arrangement, the child's best interest should always be your focus.
Do I Need a Lawyer for a Legal Separation in Pennsylvania?
Since separation isn't a legal status in Pennsylvania and a separation agreement is the same as any negotiated contract, you technically do not need a lawyer to become separated from your spouse. Consulting with an experienced divorce attorney would benefit both of you, however, as they can help you understand complicated matters around property division, child support, custody, and alimony. An attorney can help you draft a legally binding separation agreement that represents your child's best interests while still maintaining your rights.
Joseph D. Lento has helped countless families in Pennsylvania with divorce, custody, and separation matters. He understands the emotional turmoil these types of cases bring and is ready to support and guide you through this process. Contact the Lento Law Firm today by calling 888-535-3686.