Exclusive Possession of Marital Residence
A thorny issue that arises early in many divorce proceedings is the question of who may live in the marital residence during the separation period. Generally speaking, the courts will not evict either spouse from the marital residence during separation if they are living together peacefully and have not voluntarily moved away. This principle leads some devious spouses to seek questionable or even fraudulent protection from abuse (PFA) orders. Spouses who have quick tempers must avoid confrontations that can provide legitimate grounds for a PFA order, which are granted when a victim can prove “a reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm.” Some judges will grant PFA orders even where the only grounds are a verbal threat or demonstrative act (such as smashing or throwing an object in the presence of a spouse).
In theory, the courts are authorized by statute to award exclusive possession of a marital residence on an interim basis pending equitable distribution. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3502(c); Laczkowski v. Laczkowski, 496 A.2d 56 (Pa.Super.1985). In practice, exclusive possession is most often awarded to the spouse who remained in the home while the other spouse willingly vacated. If the residence is nonmarital property or titled in the name of one spouse, the titled spouse may have an advantage. The level of conflict between the parties, the ability of a spouse to afford alternate housing, and the effect upon custody arrangements are other likely considerations. An exclusive possession order does not preclude the court from awarding the residence to the excluded spouse in equitable distribution. See, e.g., Kokolis v. Kokolis, 82 Pa.D. &C.4th 214 (Allegheny Co.2006), affirmed, 927 A.2d 663 (Pa.Super.2007). Yet, practically speaking, it can be very difficult for a spouse who is evicted from the marital residence to return. This is one of the first issues that a spouse should discuss with a lawyer at the beginning of any divorce proceeding.