Lengthy Separation is Compelling Circumstance for Divorce Bifurcation
In Seelbaugh v. Seelbaugh (non-precedential), No. 1102 WDA 2012 (August 16, 2012), the Superior Court heard an appeal in which a wife contested the bifurcation of a divorce proceeding, allowing a divorce to be issued before the ancillary claims were resolved. Bifurcation is governed, under statutory amendments enacted in 2005, by 23 Pa.C.S. Section 3323(c.1). That section authorizes the trial court to enter a divorce decree without simultaneously resolving the division of property and alimony, if grounds for divorce have been established and the moving party has demonstrated “compelling circumstances,” as well as adequate economic protections for the other party.
Husband and Wife in this case had been separated for at least 13 years, but Wife opposed the divorce due to her moral and religious convictions. Husband testified that there was no joint property, and he was willing to cover wife’s health insurance until the resolution of the ancillary claims. Without bifurcation, he would continue to be trapped in his marriage. He testified that the lack of progress was a psychological burden to him, justifying the entry of a bifurcated divorce decree. The trial court granted his request, and on appeal, Wife argued that the trial court failed to show “compelling circumstances” to justify the divorce. The Superior Court affirmed.
In a concurring opinion, Judges Strassburger and Wecht wrote separately to articulate that Husband’s psychological distress, in itself, did not meet their definition of “compelling circumstances.” It was the thirteen year separation that convinced them to affirm the trial court’s decision. One wonders: if the parties had been separated three years, long enough for no-fault grounds to vest but not an extraordinarily long separation for a unilateral no-fault divorce, would bifurcation have been granted?