Bucks County Divorce Process

Your Divorce Starts With a Roadmap Forward

If you are facing divorce, your biggest worry is how it will affect your future. If you have children, you’re also worried about how it will affect them.

We understand. We help families cope with divorce every day. We are Bucks County Divorce Lawyers.

Your path to securing your future starts with understanding your legal rights and options and formulating a plan to move forward.

Because every divorce is unique, the process starts with a personalized consultation with one of our experienced divorce attorneys. We’ll analyze your case, answer all of your questions, and address your concerns. Knowing the right steps to move forward will help relieve your anxiety.

With decades of experience in all types of divorce, custody and family law matters, our attorneys will be your steadfast advocates, working together with you to find solutions to help you achieve the results you want.

Take the first step forward now and schedule your consultation.

How the Divorce Process Works in  Bucks County, PA

The attorneys at Cooley & Handy have over thirty years of experience litigating divorce cases in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Below we provide you a comprehensive overview of the divorce process from the filing of a Divorce Complaint through possible Enforcement of a Divorce Decree or Settlement Agreement.  If you are facing the uncertainties of Divorce, we encourage you to schedule a consult with one of our experienced Bucks County Divorce Attorneys to talk to you about the specifics of your case.

The First Step in the Divorce Process in Bucks County is to File a Divorce Complaint

The first step to begin any divorce action in Bucks County is to file a Complaint in Divorce.  This document, which is filed with the Court, gives the Court important information about you and your spouse, like your names, where you live, when you got married, etc., and further tells the Court that you or your spouse want to get divorced.  In order to best prepare this document, our divorce attorneys working with you will need your help to decide what you want to ask the Court to do as part of your divorce action.

The first item included in the Divorce Complaint is a request for the Court to legally divorce the parties.  The filing party has to decide if he or she wants to prove that his/her spouse committed marital “fault”” (i.e. adultery, abuse), or whether he or she wants to move forward with the Divorce under the “no-fault” criteria, which are “Consent” or “1 year Separation”.

The vast majority of Bucks County Cases are not filed under the “fault” criteria for divorce.  Instead, the filing party more often asks the Court to divorce the parties after 1) both parties sign documents agreeing to the Divorce, known as “Consent Affidavits”, or 2) after the parties have been separated for at least a year and one of those parties files a “Separation Affidavit” with the Court.

Second, if you or your spouse acquired assets, like bank accounts, retirement accounts, real estate, pensions, etc. after you got married and before you decided to get divorced, then you may want to ask the Court to divide that property between you and your spouse.  That process is called Equitable Distribution of Marital Property, and is one of the requests you can include in your Divorce Complaint.

Other requests you may include in the initial Divorce Complaint would be a request to award alimony in Bucks County, PA if you are the lower earning spouse, or a request for child custody in Bucks County, PA, to decide the best custody arrangement for your children.  Due to recent changes to the Rules of Civil Procedure, requests for support for yourself during the divorce process or child support in Bucks County for your children must be included in a separate document.  Please review the Support area of our website if you have questions specific to those issues.

You may also request that the other party pay for your legal fees or any expenses associated with the divorce.  This last request is often included in Bucks County Divorce Complaints; however, in the vast majority of cases each individual party is responsible for his/her own legal fees and costs.

A thorough consultation with the attorneys at Cooley & Handy will provide you with the advice and guidance you need in order to decide what to include in the Complaint if you are the filing party, or what to do in response to a Complaint filed against you.

The Next Step in the Divorce Process in Bucks County is Service of the Divorce Complaint

After the Complaint in Divorce is filed, the filing party must “serve” the other party with the document, to prove to the Court that the other party was notified of the Complaint.  Most commonly, the filing party “serves” the Complaint by mailing the document to the other party via Certified Mail, which requires the other party’s signature.  However, if the filing party knows that the other party has an attorney, then the Complaint can be mailed directly to the attorney for that party.  Then, the attorney for that party can sign a paper agreeing that he/she received the Complaint on behalf of that person.  If the filing party is not successful in serving the other party via Certified Mail or by sending the document to an attorney for the other party, then the filing party will have to hire a process server to hand the document directly to the other party.

Grounds for Divorce in Bucks County, PA

After a Complaint in Divorce is filed and served, but before the Court can sign a Final Decree in Divorce, the parties must establish that “Grounds for Divorce” exist.  There are three “Grounds for Divorce”:  1) Fault, 2) Consent of both parties, or 3) 1 year of Separation.

Prior to the enactment of the current divorce code, the only way in Pennsylvania to get divorced was to prove that one party committed marital “fault”, like adulty or abuse.  The current divorce Code introduced the two “no-fault” grounds to obtain a divorce decree: 1) Consent or 2) Separation (initially the Code required a 2 year separation, but now the Code only requires a 1 year separation.)  The no-fault grounds for divorce allow for a simpler process, and in addition, proving marital fault does not change how the court will divide any property the parties acquired during the marriage.  Because of these main two reasons, almost all Bucks County Divorces will follow the no-fault procedures of either Consent or 1 Year Separation.

After the Complaint is served (via Certified Mail, to an attorney, or hand delivery), the parties must wait at least 90 days before they can sign the Consent Affidavit agreeing to be divorce.   If both parties sign a Consent Affidavit, then the Court can sign an Order acknowledging that the “Grounds for Divorce” (i.e. Consent) have been established, and the Court can sign what is called a “Grounds Order”.   If neither party asked the Court for any other issue to be addressed other than the Divorce (i.e. property division, alimony), the Court could also simply enter a Final Decree after the parties sign their Consents, and file additional paperwork with the Court.

Parties are often aware of the 90-day waiting period, but they often mistakenly believe that they will be automatically divorced 90 days after a Complaint is filed.  This is one of the biggest Myths of Bucks County Divorce Cases.

How a 1-Year Separation Divorce Works in Bucks County, PA

If one party refuses to sign a Consent Affidavit, then the party who wants to move forward with the Divorce must wait at least one year from the date he/she separated from his/her spouse to begin the process to establish “Grounds for Divorce”.

In Pennsylvania, separation is defined as the date when the parties make it known to each other that they are going to separate.  Parties in Pennsylvania are deemed “separated” upon the earliest of the following occurring:  1) living in separate homes with the intent to divorce, 2) living together but with the known intent to divorce, or 3) the filing of the Divorce Complaint.

If a Divorce Compliant is filed, then it is presumed that this is the date the parties separated; however, based on the individual facts of the case, one of the parties may be able to prove to the Court (or the parties may agree) that they separated from their spouse earlier than when the Complaint was filed.

After one year passes from that date of separation, one party files a paper with the Court known as a “Separation Affidavit”, which states that the parties have now been separated for a year.  He/she also sends this document to his/her spouse.  If the spouse agrees that the parties have been separated for a year, then after two waiting periods of 20 days each, the party who filed the Separation Affidavit can ask the Court to acknowledge the 1 Year Separation as “Grounds for Divorce”.  Then, the Court can sign an Order acknowledging that the “Grounds for Divorce” (i.e. Separation) have been established, and the Court can sign the “Grounds Order”.   If neither party asked the Court for any other issue to be addressed other than the Divorce (i.e. property division, alimony), the Court could also enter a Final Decree, if requested, after the Separation Affidavit is filed and sent to the other party.

Again, just like with the Consent Process, nothing happens automatically in Bucks County Divorce Actions.  One of the parties must always file some paperwork to request that the next step in the process begin, or to request the Final Decree in Divorce, if all prior requirements of the action are complete.

Property v. No Property Divorces in Bucks County, PA

No Property Divorce

If you or your spouse did not acquire any property (bank accounts, retirement accounts, real estate, pensions, etc.) after your date of marriage and before your final date of separation, you can obtain a simple “no-property” divorce in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The Complaint in Divorce would have only asked the Court to divorce the parties once the “Grounds for Divorce” were established under the criteria discussed above.  After the Grounds are established, if no other claims were included in the Complaint, the Court will enter a Final Decree in Divorce upon request by one of the parties.  On average, it takes approximately 4-6 months from the date the Complaint was filed with the Court to obtain a Final Decree for a no-property divorce, if both parties cooperate to sign Consent Affidavits, or if the parties were already separated for a year before one party filed the Complaint (or the 1 year separation occurred shortly after the filing of the Complaint).

Property Divorce

On the other hand, if you or your spouse acquired property during your marriage, and one of you asked the Court to divide that property as part of the Complaint in Divorce, or in an Answer filed to the Complaint in Divorce, the process is a bit more complex.

The first phase of a divorce which includes a division of property, is called “discovery”.  The “discovery” process is the process of exchanging information with your spouse about the assets each of you acquired during the marriage.  You have the right to know all of the information about any asset in which your spouse has any interest, and you have the obligation to provide that same information to your spouse.  The information you have the right to receive, and the information you have the obligation to produce, would include telling each other about all of your bank accounts, real estate, collectible items, retirement accounts, employment benefits, gifts or inheritances from friends and family members, rights to receive money from trusts, etc.  In addition to telling the other party about these assets, and learning from the other party that these assets exits, you also have the right to receive all of the documentation that would prove the asset’s value, like bank statements, valuation reports, trust documents, wills, etc.  On average, the discovery process takes about 6-12 months, depending on the complexity of the assets and amount of information and documents being exchanged.  This process can take much longer if one or both parties refuses to provide information voluntarily and forces the other party to seek Court Orders and other interventions.

The discovery process can quickly become the most expensive phase of any Bucks County Divorce Action, and one way to contain those costs is to cooperate with all reasonable discovery requests made of you by the other party.  The experienced attorneys at Cooley & Handy draw on years of experience to advise you about your rights and obligations during the discovery process, and will help you complete the discovery process in a cost-mindful way.

At the conclusion of the discovery phase, you are prepared to enter into settlement discussions with the goal of negotiating an agreement.  If an agreement is not possible, then you are prepared to move your Bucks County Divorce Action to the next phase of the divorce process, which in Bucks County is a Masters Hearing.

Using Experts to Value Your Marital Property in Bucks County

As part of the discovery process, you also have the right to hire experts to value any asset relevant to your Bucks County Divorce.  Any asset can be valued; however, it is not always worth the expense of hiring an expert to value an asset, if that asset does not have significant value.

Most of time in Bucks County, when we consider valuation experts, we are considering business valuation experts.  These experts review and analyze business documents and financial records of a business to determine if there is any value to the business owned by one or both of the spouses.   Our attorneys at Cooley & Handy have a broad range of experience working with a variety of business owners, non-business owner spouses, and business valuation experts, when the value of a business is at issue.   We work with a vast network of Bucks County Business Valuation Experts, who have extensive experience valuing Bucks County Businesses, and testifying in Bucks County Divorce Actions.

Obtaining Interim or Special Relief in Your Divorce in Bucks County

During the course of your Bucks County Divorce action, it is possible that something could come up that may cause you immediate financial harm and you may not be able to wait until the divorce is final to deal with that issue.  Some examples may be that your spouse is removing money from financial accounts, not paying critical bills like mortgages, not reporting rental income received from rental properties, or not accurately accounting for self-employment income, or otherwise hiding, dissipating, or secreting away assets.  If something like this comes up in your case, the Court can take action by entering any order it deems appropriate to protect the assets of the marriage from “disappearing” before the Court can distribute those assets between the parties.

Settling Your Divorce or Proceeding to a Master’s Hearing in Bucks County

After discovery is complete, you and your spouse may agree on how you want to divide all of the assets.  If you do agree, then your attorneys will draft a document called a Marital Settlement Agreement, which will outline all of the terms of that agreement.  That agreement will be sent to the Court, and will become part of your divorce decree.  If you are able to settle your matter, then you can expect to receive a final decree about 4-8 weeks after you file the agreement and the final paperwork with the Court asking for a final decree.

If you are not able to settle your matter, then the first step to resolving your case in Bucks County is to request a Masters Hearing.  After you receive a grounds order (discussed above) and discovery is complete, then you will ask the Court to schedule a Masters Hearing.  The Masters Hearing is usually scheduled within 4-6 months after filing the request for the hearing.

Prior to the hearing being scheduled, you and your attorney will prepare a summary document telling the Court all of the relevant information about you, your spouse, your children, your respective incomes, and your assets.  With that document you will send to the Court all of the relevant financial documents you and your spouse exchanged during the discovery process.  The other side will also prepare a similar document.  The Master will review both documents before the hearing so that the Master can understand which issues you and your spouse agree about, and which items remain in dispute.

At the Masters Hearing, you, your spouse, your respective counsel, and the assigned Master will meet at the Courthouse in a conference room to discuss all of the issues of your case.  At that meeting/hearing, the Master will make verbal recommendations to see if you and your spouse can reach an agreement.  If you reach an agreement at the Masters Hearing, that agreement will be read to a Court Reporter, who will record the agreement as a Court Transcript.  The Master will then send your complete file to the Judge who will sign your final decree.

If you and your spouse do not reach an agreement with the Master, then the Master will prepare a written recommendation, which he/she will send to your attorneys.  You and your spouse will have 20 days to decide if you accept the written recommendation of the Master.  If either (or both) of you do not agree with the written recommendation, you can appeal the recommendation of the Master and ask for a new hearing with a Judge.

How an Equitable Distribution Hearing with a Judge works in Bucks County, PA

If either (or both) of the parties file an appeal of the Masters recommendation, your matter will be scheduled for a de novo hearing in front of a Judge.  De novo simply means that it is a brand new hearing and the Judge does not have to consider or accept any recommendation made by the Master.  This hearing is more formal than a Masters Hearing, and will happen in a Courtroom before a Judge.  You and your attorney will decide if any person needs to testify at the hearing, and will decide what evidence (i.e. documents) to submit for the Judge to consider.  After the Judge hears all of the evidence and testimony, he/she will issue a final decree and decision dividing all of the marital assets and deciding any other financial issues that may have been raised.  The Judge’s decision becomes the final decision if neither party asks for any further review or appeal by a higher court.

What Happens After Your Divorce Case is Resolved and You Receive Your Divorce Decree?

You finally made it to the end, and you have a final decree in divorce and a document which tells you and your spouse how you are dividing your property.  Is there anything else to do?  Well that depends on your agreement.  After your final decree is entered, you should review the agreement and make a list of any “action items” that need to take place.  Often parties need to continue to cooperate to transfer assets from one person’s name into another person’s name to comply with the agreement or decree.  You may need to sell real estate; you may need to enter into a separate order known as a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to transfer retirement accounts; you may need to make note of future dates to transfer certain assets later; and, you may need to make a note of when an alimony term ends.  You should always keep a copy of your final decree and divorce settlement to refer to later in the event you need to understand your rights/obligations under that agreement.

Finally, in the unlikely event that your spouse is not complying with any part of the agreement, you always can return to Court to enforce your rights under the agreement or decree, and possibly receive an award of attorney’s fees to do so.

We hope you found this summary helpful as you navigate the challenges of obtaining a Bucks County Divorce.  The attorneys at Cooley & Handy are well-prepared to discuss all of the details of your specific matter and to provide you with advice and guidance along the way.