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In Pa., shorten waiting period needed for divorce

Divorce is difficult. It can be painful, exhausting, debilitating, and expensive. In Pennsylvania, it can also take a long time.

Divorce is difficult. It can be painful, exhausting, debilitating, and expensive. In Pennsylvania, it can also take a long time.

The Pennsylvania legislature has an opportunity to shorten the time it takes for divorce when parents can't agree the marriage is over. Currently, when spouses don't agree that it's time for divorce we have a mandatory two-year waiting period before no-fault divorce grounds exist. In most counties across the commonwealth, the process doesn't even begin before two years have elapsed. This marital limbo often jeopardizes the children, the family, and the well-being of the spouses.

While it's true that divorce grounds can be established in 90 days if both parties consent, many times one spouse will refuse for a variety of reasons: anger, financial dependence, or just to inflict pain on the initiating party. Sometimes, the non-consenting spouse wants to save the marriage. In most cases, the request for reconciliation leads to three mandatory marriage counseling sessions.

Initially, the two-year waiting period was intended to enhance the opportunity for reconciliation. Realistically, however, reconciliation happens for reasons unrelated to this delay.

Divorce is typically a last resort, and an additional waiting period is unnecessary. Spouses seeking a divorce likely have worked on their marriage for years; they may have talked, and cried, and hoped, and tried to maintain their relationship. In the end, at least one of the parties has already considered alternatives, and still feels the need to walk away.

Pennsylvania's waiting period after separation or filing for divorce keeps spouses in limbo for three years or more, making it difficult for them to begin their healing process. During this time, bitterness ferments, while all aspects of the divorce remain up in the air: custody agreements aren't final, financial arrangements are uncertain, and decisions aren't made around marital assets such as the home. Children often don't know where they will live or what school they will attend, which is detrimental to their development.

The current law also places a financial burden on separating couples. There is a direct economic expense to people who hire lawyers. Spouses hire experts at the beginning of their separation to evaluate all marital assets. By the time the waiting period has ended and couples are preparing to complete the divorce, those assets must be re-evaluated - compounding the expenses.

Additionally, dependent spouses due to receive alimony will receive less support over time - the money they receive during the separation is included in final alimony decisions, and therefore reduces the length of time they are able to receive alimony payments once divorced.

There is now momentum to change Pennsylvania law to ease families' suffering.

House Bill 380 would reduce the length of time for a unilateral no-fault divorce from two years to one year. It was passed by the House on Nov. 9 and is expected to be introduced in the Senate for a vote. It should be approved and sent to the governor's desk for his signature. This is a good piece of legislation that will help to ease the pain of protracted divorce for families.

I believe in preserving marriage and families. If a marriage fails, however, we need to do our best to preserve the family ties post-divorce. In my experience, a critical way to help the family survive the strains of a break up is to efficiently complete the divorce process. We need to change our current statute that delays healing while fueling hurt and harm.

Mary Cushing Doherty is a partner with High Swartz in Norristown.