HARRISBURG – For J. Paul Helvy, the chairman of the Family Law Practice Group at McNees Wallace & Nurick LLS and the immediate past chairman of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Family Law Section, the fight for a reduction in the divorce waiting period in the state was primarily about children and the overall well-being of families.
Under Act 102 signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, also known as the “2 to 1” Law, the waiting period for obtaining a no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania was reduced to one year from two.
Pennsylvania’s current Divorce Code was passed in 1980, leaving couples three choices for resolving their divorce - reaching a mutual agreement, waiting for three years for the divorce to be finalized, which was cut to two years in 1988, or proving grounds for fault. If a consensual agreement is reached, a divorce in Pennsylvania could become final in as little as 90 days.
However, for proponents of a shorter waiting period, Helvy said two years was too long for families in crisis.
“It’s really horrible for the kids,” Helvy told the Pennsylvania Record. “(It) really wasn’t good for the litigants or the children.”
The Family Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association has long pushed for further reduction of the waiting period. Helvy was at the helm of that section from July 2014 to July 2015 and said he worked with Dan Clifford, who is now a judge on the Court of Common Pleas in Montgomery County, along with legislators and fellow lawyers to advocate for the shorter wait time.
In addition to conflict related to child custody issues, Helvy said extended waiting periods also “leave people in financial limbo” for a longer period of time because many people are reluctant or unable to make important financial decisions while a divorce is pending.
“Leaving people in that sort of purgatory lengthened the period of time folks were in conflict,” Helvy said.
Helvy said the biggest argument against a reduction was “We don’t want to make it easy to get a divorce.” He said opponents of the reduction wanted to give divorcing couples a “chilling-off period.”
However, Helvy said research into the issue revealed that the percentage of reconciliations after one year from the divorce filing date was very low.
“We rekindled our efforts in 2013, and it eventually came to fruition,” Helvy said.
According to Helvy, couples mired in a custody battle often end their disputes and attempt to move on after a divorce is finalized.
“Once we would settle the divorce, we wouldn’t see these clients again,” he said. “(The effect of the law is) reducing the level of conflict for people going through a divorce.”
Pennsylvania’s three-year and two-year waiting periods were not the norm in other states, according to Helvy. New York and New Jersey only require couples to wait six months to finalize a divorce, Indiana has a 60-day waiting period, and there is no wait in Ohio.
”Pennsylvania was a bit of an outlier in terms of this waiting period,” Helvy said.
The new state law that reduces the waiting period to one year is scheduled to take effect on Dec. 4. Those who separated before that date will still be required to wait out the balance of their two-year period.