How Pennsylvania decides which court will hear a divorce case
Which Pennsylvania court will hear a divorce case can be a simple matter; if one of the parties to the divorce has lived in Pennsylvania for longer than 6 months before filing for divorce, the county family law court in which that person resides can preside over the divorce process.
Unfortunately life, as in the law, is not always that simple. If both of the parties are new to Pennsylvania or the parties live in separate counties in the Commonwealth, there is some room for negotiation as to where the divorce case may be heard.
Residency versus domicile
Pennsylvania requires one of the parties to the divorce to be a resident of the Commonwealth. This means that one party to the divorce must have a fixed and permanent home in Pennsylvania with the intent of staying in the state. He or she must have lived in that home for six months immediately prior to filing; having grown up in Pennsylvania, for example, plays no role in establishing current residency.
Some states require a person to have a “domicile” in the state, meaning a primary residence. A married couple that lived in Pennsylvania for the majority of the year but had a summer home in Florida, for example, would have a domicile in Pennsylvania but a residence in Florida. Essentially, Pennsylvania has a slightly looser residency qualification than those other states.
The reason why states have this requirement is to prevent “forum shopping.” Forum shopping is the term for people who, if allowed, would choose a jurisdiction they perceive as favorable to their case. Each state and county has its own particularities, and in certain circumstances choosing the right court can benefit one party to the harm of the other.
That is not to say that parties to a divorce have no choice. So long as one spouse is a resident of Pennsylvania and the other spouse agrees to a county, the county of their preference will preside over the divorce.
Importantly, this leads to certain nuances of the law that can trap people without an attorney. In Potter and Camden counties, for example, judges will not give a ruling on real estate outside of their respective counties. This provides an opening to get around equitable distribution laws. Equitable distribution is the legal term for a judge distributing assets in a fair, although not necessarily equal, manner.
An example may help to clarify: Spouse A currently lives in a home in Montgomery county which Spouse B owns. She is served papers that the divorce will be heard in Camden county and does not object to the location. The case moves forward and Spouse A discovers the judge will not rule over who owns the condo in Montgomery county. This could lead to Spouse A losing out completely on the condo she is currently living in and potentially reduce or eliminate her alimony.
Divorce is stressful enough, and technicalities such as residency requirements are the last thing a person wants to think about during such a difficult time. People going through or contemplating divorce should speak with an experienced divorce lawyer to ensure that after the divorce is over, they can get on with their lives as soon as possible, having preserved their entitlements to marital assets and secured their financial rights to support and alimony.