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Legal Separation in Pennsylvania - The Great Myth
I am always amazed at the number of clients who ask me how they can get a "legal separation" in Pennsylvania. In actuality, the concept of a legal separation does not exist in Pennsylvania. Unlike several other states, Pennsylvania does not require separating parties to go to court and request a judge to issue what is called a "separate maintenance decree" that officially declares their marriage over.
Rather, separating spouses in Pennsylvania may contract for their separation through a private civil agreement in which they can address the division of their martial assets and debts at the time of separation, child custody, child and spousal support and/or alimony upon any divorce that takes place, life and medical insurance issues, estate matters, and how the interim bills, expenses, accounts and other finances are to handled during the separation period.
Date of separation in Pennsylvania becomes a crucial question since the marital value of most assets and debts are measured as of this date. In Pennsylvania, separation does not always mean physical separation. In fact, spouses can be regarded as separated while still living under the same roof. The key question a court will ask is at what point did the spouses stop acting like a married couple.
Upon spouses notarizing their signatures on the agreement, it becomes a legally binding document under general contract principles. Any disputes under the agreement will be addressed by a general civil court judge, not a family court judge. This agreement can remain in effect for an indefinite period of time, and can also be amended at any time upon agreement of the spouses. If a divorce is subsequently filed by either party, the agreement may be attached to the divorce petition and presented to the family court for approval and final divorce decree.
If you and your spouse both agree that your marriage is over, (and especially if you have since physically separated), but do not wish to move forward with a divorce for whatever reason, it is absolutely crucial to have a separation agreement in place which protects you both during this period. If left unaddressed, values of your assets and debts are likely to fluctuate greatly over time and this will inevitably result in a dispute between you and your spouse later on over when the separation occurred - all this because you didn't address it earlier at a time when you could both agree that the marriage was over.
A couple can come to their own agreement about property settlement, which the court will generally accept. The Pennsylvania court will decide if either spouse is entitled to alimony, based on age, physical and mental condition, earning potential, duration of the marriage and standard of living. The court decides the duration of alimony, but support ends automatically if the one receiving it remarries or cohabits.
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"A Plain English Guide to Protecting Your Children"
Author: Mary L. Boland, Attorney at Law
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