How to Prove At-Fault Divorce in Pennsylvania

By Beverly Bird

Fault-based divorces are somewhat rare in Pennsylvania, especially since the state legislature amended Pennsylvania's Divorce Code in 2005, permitting couples to divorce by mutual consent, a form of no-fault divorce. Pennsylvania courts don’t consider marital misconduct when dividing property, so the consent option is usually the easiest, least stressful and least expensive method by which to end a marriage. If you nevertheless want to file for divorce on fault grounds, Pennsylvania law does not make the process easy.

Recognized Fault Grounds

Pennsylvania recognizes six fault grounds: adultery, desertion, cruel and barbarous treatment, indignities, bigamy and incarceration of the spouse. The state also allows you to divorce on grounds that your spouse is insane, although this is not considered grounds for fault divorce in Pennsylvania – the law doesn't regard insanity as a deliberate act of bad behavior.

Criteria of Fault Grounds

In Pennsylvania, it’s not sufficient to simply accuse a spouse of committing an act that constitutes grounds for divorce. Most grounds have additional prerequisites. For example, if you are alleging that your spouse deserted you, she must remain away for a year or more before you can file. If you file on grounds of cruel and barbarous treatment, your spouse must have committed at least one act that threatened your life or well-being. Filing on grounds of indignities requires that your spouse treated you so poorly, your life was “intolerable” and “burdensome” as a result. A six-month sentence is not sufficient to file on grounds of incarceration – your spouse must remain imprisoned for at least two years.

Pennsylvania Fault Divorce Procedure

Unlike many states, Pennsylvania requires a separate court proceeding when you file on fault grounds. A court official, called a “master,” will review the evidence submitted to prove your spouse committed marital misconduct. This occurs prior to trial. The master then makes a recommendation to the judge, indicating he believes your fault grounds are valid or you didn’t offer adequate proof. If you or your spouse disagree with the master’s decision, you can challenge his recommendation later at trial. The master won’t accept your fault grounds simply because you can prove your spouse committed the act alleged in your divorce complaint. You must also prove that her act ruined your marriage, and that you are innocent of any wrongdoing that might have caused your spouse to behave as she did.

Proving Fault Grounds

If you charge your spouse with adultery, you must prove she was inclined to stray and had the opportunity to do so. You might need to enlist the services of a private investigator to achieve this. The investigator doesn’t necessarily have to catch your spouse committing an act of infidelity; instead, he can provide the court with photographs of romantic situations, evidence your spouse and her paramour disappeared together for hours at a time, or written communications between them, such as love letters. Grounds of indignities and cruel and barbarous treatment usually require the testimony of witnesses who saw your spouse belittle you, strike you, harm you or commit some other cruel, repeated behavior. Desertion is usually the easiest grounds to prove because you can gather evidence demonstrating your spouse has taken up residence somewhere other than your home, such as utility bills or a lease in her name. However, you may still need witnesses to testify your spouse left you with the intention of ending your marriage.