Death & Divorce and Their Disparate Effect on Marital Distribution in Pennsylvania

By Christopher C. Carr, Esq. Chester County bankruptcy attorney.

A stark contrast exists in the law of Pennsylvania as between the effects of death and divorce upon marital property distribution.  In the case of divorce, the marital assets, including assets nominally titled in the name of one spouse alone but purchased with marital assets, are subject to equitable distribution (ED) as between the spouses. In the case of and by virtue of death however, the deceased spouse (or more precisely, his or her estate) loses all rights in all property held in the name of husband and wife or otherwise subject to ED unless accruing to the estate under some other law. This is because there ceases to be any counterparty in the divorce action, which as an action in equity can then no longer proceed.  With few exceptions, summarized below, the surviving spouse takes all.

      However, there is a new exception to this death/divorce disparity which was entered into the Pennsylvania statutes in 2005. Recognizing that this had  produced some highly inequitable results, the Pennsylvania General Assembly sought to remedy this when Divorce Code amendments were considered. Section 3323(d.1) was added to the Divorce Code providing that where divorce grounds have been established by the date of death of the spouse, the divorce action may proceed with the executor for the decedent being substituted as a party for the decedent. To establish grounds the following rules are set forth by the statute: a)      If a fault divorce was pending the Court needs to have found that divorce grounds are established, b)     If both parties consented to the divorce, grounds are established, or, c)      Lastly in the no fault case, if an affidavit of two year separation was filed without contest or the court found two years of separation to have elapsed and the marriage was irretrievably broken, grounds are again said to be “proven”. Where grounds are not established as of the date of death, the old rules apply. The divorce ends and each party resorts to those rights created by federal laws like ERISA, the rights of joint owners to the decedent’s interests and the rights to take against the will under the Probate Code. Taper v. Taper, 939 A.2d 969,973 (Pa. S. 2007.) COMMENT:   As our population ages, one can envision this becoming a problem of epidemic proportions. There are obviously many situations which will not fall within the aegis of the 2005 amendment and appear left to chance. One obvious example would be a fault based divorce where no court decree finding grounds for the divorce has been entered as of the date of death. This writer suggests that thePennsylvania legislature will need to take more decisive action, terminating the inequitable operation of the old rules entirely under circumstances where it can be proven that the divorcing spouse knew or should have known of the dire health status of the other spouse as of the date of the divorce petition.

Law Offices of Christopher C. Carr, MBA,  P.C., is a quality bankruptcy and debt relief practice, located in  Valley Township, west of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where Attorney Christopher Carr, a Chester County bankruptcy attorney, who has over 30 years if diversified ;egal experience, concentrates on serving the residents of and businesses located within Western Chester County and Eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, including the communities in and around Atglen, Bird in Hand, Caln, Christiana, Coatesville, Downingtown, Eagle, Exton, Fallowfield Gap, Honeybrook, Lancaster, Lincoln University, Modena, New Holland, Parkesburg, Paradise, Ronks, Sadsbury, Thorndale, Valley Township, Wagontown & West Chester,  Pennsylvania. If you reside or do business in the area and need assistance with a legal issue, please call Mr. Carr at (610)380-7969 or write him at today!  

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