Important Terms Used in Pennsylvania Family Law

Important Terms Used in Pennsylvania Family Law

The successful practice of family law in Pennsylvania relies on one’s familiarity with specific terms and phrases that are not readily understood by the average person outside the context of the practice. Whether you plan on representing yourself or hiring an attorney in a family law matter, the value of knowing commonly used terms in family law cannot be understated. Here are a few of those terms, described below.


Pennsylvania Statutes § 1102 defines “marriage” as “[a] civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.” Despite this definition, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Obergefell v. Hodges that states may not pass laws that infringe on a person’s right to marry someone of the same sex. As a result, same-sex marriages may be granted in Pennsylvania, despite the wording of Section 1102.

Common Law Marriage

A marriage that arises from the parties’ conduct under legal principles established by the common law tradition is known as a common-law marriage. However, common law marriage was abolished by statute in Pennsylvania in 2005. However, certain common law marriages may be grandfathered if they meet the requirements of a common-law marriage.


Pennsylvania Statutes § 3103 defines “alimony” to mean “[a]n order for support granted by this Commonwealth or any other state to a spouse or former spouse in conjunction with a decree granting a divorce or annulment.”

Alimony Pendente Lite

Section 3103 also defines “alimony pendente lite” as “[a]n order for temporary support granted to a spouse during the pendency of a divorce or annulment proceeding.” The phrase “pendente lite” is Latin for “pending litigation.” The purpose of awarding alimony pendente lite is to preserve the status quo of the parties up until trial.


The word “arrearages” refers to support payments that have not been paid but have past their due date. If family support arrearages reach a certain amount, the spouse who is supposed to benefit from support payments may request the court to enforce the order through contempt of court proceedings.

Irretrievable Breakdown

Pennsylvania law recognizes “irretrievable breakdown” as a ground for obtaining a divorce. Under Pennsylvania Statutes § 3103, “irretrievable breakdown” means “estrangement due to marital difficulties with no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.” The ground of irretrievable breakdown is considered to be a “no-fault” ground for divorce, which means that the party seeking divorce does not have to prove that the other spouse’s wrongful conduct caused their marriage to end.

Marital Property

Pennsylvania Statutes § 3501 defines “marital property” to mean “all property acquired by either party during the marriage and the increase in value of any nonmarital property acquired [prior to marriage]…and [by gift, except between spouses, bequest, devise or descent]…as measured and determined…from the date of marriage or later acquisition date to either the date of final separation or the date as close to the hearing on equitable distribution as possible, whichever date results in a lesser increase.”

Nonmarital Property

Although Pennsylvania statutory law does not explicitly define “nonmarital property,” Section 3501 specifically excludes the following from the definition of “marital property”:

  • “Property acquired prior to marriage or property acquired in exchange for property acquired prior to the marriage.
  • Property excluded by valid agreement of the parties entered into before, during or after the marriage.
  • Property acquired by gift, except between spouses, bequest, devise or descent or property acquired in exchange for such property.
  • Property acquired after final separation until the date of divorce, except for property acquired in exchange for marital assets.
  • Property which a party has sold, granted, conveyed or otherwise disposed of in good faith and for value prior to the date of final separation.
  • Veterans’ benefits exempt from attachment, levy or seizure pursuant to the act of September 2, 1958 (Public Law 85-857, 72 Stat. 1229), as amended, except for those benefits received by a veteran where the veteran has waived a portion of his military retirement pay in order to receive veterans’ compensation.
  • Property to the extent to which the property has been mortgaged or otherwise encumbered in good faith for value prior to the date of final separation.
  • Any payment received as a result of an award or settlement for any cause of action or claim which accrued prior to the marriage or after the date of final separation regardless of when the payment was received.”

In general, nonmarital property consists of assets that an individual spouse acquired when the couple was not married, or if the couple did not intend to treat such assets as marital property. This definition is important in proceedings involving property division upon divorce.

Home State

Pennsylvania Statutes § 5402 defines “home state” to mean “[t]he state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding. In the case of a child six months of age or younger, the term means the state in which the child lived from birth with any of the persons mentioned. A period of temporary absence of any of the mentioned persons is part of the period.”

This term is relevant to resolving custody disputes under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, to determine what state court has the authority to decide interstate custody issues.


Under Pennsylvania Statutes § 5322, “adult” means “[a]n individual 18 years of age or older.” Generally, the rights and responsibilities that arise from the parent-child relationship end when a child becomes an adult. For example, child support obligations automatically terminate when a child turns 18, unless some disability an adult child from independently handling their own affairs, such as self-care and financial commitments.

Legal Custody

Section 5322 also defines “legal custody” as “[t]he right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions.”

Physical Custody

Under Section 5322, “physical custody” is defined as “the actual physical possession and control of a child.”

Primary Physical Custody

The provisions of Section 5322 define “primary physical custody” as “[t]he right to assume physical custody of the child for the majority of time.”

Partial Physical Custody

Section 5322 defines “partial physical custody” to mean “[t]he right to assume physical custody of the child for less than a majority of the time.” A parent usually receives partial physical custody of their child when the other parent is awarded primary physical custody. Other states use the term “visitation” to refer to partial physical custody.

For More Information, Contact Scaringi Law

The terms mentioned above are only a fraction of the terms used throughout the practice of family law in Pennsylvania. To make sure you and your family’s interests are in good hands, you should consult an experienced attorney at Scaringi Law who is familiar with the legal terminology applicable to your family law case.

To ask about a free initial consultation, please call our office at (717) 775-7195 or fill out our online request form today.


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