Pennsylvania Divorce: Demystifying the Process

Divorce in family courts around Pittsburgh can be intimidating. A little information can go a long way to prepare you for what lies ahead.

What if I told you the divorce process in Pennsylvania is fairly straight forward? You’d probably wonder if I knew what I was talking about. Speaking, even thinking, about a divorce gives rise to feelings of trepidation, anxiety, and fear. But the fact of the matter is, the process is predictable. We can’t predict all of the twists and turns of a divorce action – sometimes facts spring up out of nowhere. But we can predict most, if not all, stages of the legal process itself.

The Pennsylvania Divorce Process

The Pennsylvania Divorce process is fairly straightforward.

Initial Consultation

The first step you will take with your Pennsylvania divorce is to consult with your Pittsburgh family attorney. We discussed this consultation in detail here. There are multiple topics the attorney will cover at the consultation. For example, your attorney will ask about your criminal history and the criminal history of your spouse. Your attorney will also ask about your finances.

Filing the Complaint

In Pennsylvania, divorce proceedings are started by filing the initial complaint. A complaint is a document your attorney will prepare that outlines what you are asking the Court to do. The complaint will contain “counts”, or requests. Your complaint will request the Court to grant a divorce, and may even request that the Court grant custody of minor children, separate property, or establish support or alimony.


One of the most expensive and time consuming parts of the divorce process is discovery. Discovery is the mechanism through which the attorneys gather relevant information to present to the finder of fact (whether it be the hearing officer, master, or Judge). For instance, your attorney may hold a deposition with the opposing party. A deposition is a question and answer session the parties conduct in the presence of a court reporter, but without a judge.

Discovery in family law cases is a matter of right in some instances and not others. Not all cases will involve lengthy discovery and others will. Speak with your attorney about the extent of discovery he or she expects in your case and how that will impact your costs.

Petitions for Special Relief/Motions Court

Once the proceedings have started with the filing of a complaint, your attorney may decide to pursue relief in motions Court through the filing of a motion or petition for special relief. Motions Court is an open Court proceeding held on a weekly basis by a family law Judge. In motions Court, the Judge hears motions related to cases that were not included in the complaint.

Motions Court Judges can decide on issues such as petitions for exclusive possession of marital homes during divorce, interim custody orders, the appointment of a master, and discovery requests, to name a few. Motions Court is an efficient way to deal with issues in a timely manner.

Support and Alimony

One of the biggest issues to deal with during separation and divorce is the issue of money. The law provides, in some instances, for one spouse to make payments to the other spouse. Spousal support is a payment a spouse makes during separation, but prior to the divorce proceedings. APL, or alimony pendente lite, is a payment a spouse makes after the divorce proceedings have begun. Alimony is a payment a spouse makes to their former spouse after the divorce has been finalized. Alimony requires the entry of a divorce decree and may be limited in duration by the Court.


Yet another big issue to deal with during a divorce is the custody of minor children. In Pennsylvania, there are two types of custody: legal and physical. Legal custody is the right to make decisions over the child for issues ranging from healthcare to schooling to religion. Physical custody is the right to “possession” of the child – i.e. – the right to spend time with the child. Courts deal with custody first at a custody conciliation conference. If the parties cannot resolve the issues at the initial hearing, then the parties proceed to trial.

Equitable Distribution

The final big ticket item in a divorce centers around the division of marital assets and debts. The process of dividing marital assets and debts is referred to as “equitable distribution.” In almost every county in Pennsylvania, equitable distribution will be handled by a divorce master or Judge. “Equitable” means fair. In Pennsylvania, masters and Judges determine equitable distribution of assets and debts by considering eleven (11) different statutory factors. [1]


During the entire course of the divorce proceedings, your attorney will be negotiating with the opposing party and their attorney (if they have one) to try to settle your case. A settlement is when the parties resolve issues prior to hearing or trial. For instance, you can settle any issue in a divorce proceeding without having to go to hearing or trial, if the opposing party is in agreement. You can settle issues relating to alimony, equitable distribution, and custody.


A Pennsylvania divorce is a very involved, and at times lengthy, process. From the initial consultation to settlement, it is important to work closely with your Pittsburgh family attorney to avoid pitfalls and errors. Provide information requested by your attorney in a timely manner, and be candid with your attorney at every step.

If you would like to schedule a consultation, contact the Pittsburgh divorce lawyers at Dodaro, Matta, & Cambest, P.C. today at 412-243-1600. We can help guide you through the Pennsylvania divorce process.

[1] 23 Pa. C.S. § 3502(a)

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