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Separate and marital assets in a Pennsylvania divorce

Who gets what remains an important issue in most divorces, especially those where valuable assets are at stake. Pennsylvania takes the equitable distribution approach, which focuses on fairness rather than strict equality, although in many cases these end up being substantially equivalent.

One central issue to division is determining which assets to divide in the first place. Typically, courts only distribute marital property while separate property continues to remain solely with its owner. Thus, it can become very important to determine whether a particular piece of property belongs to both spouses or only to one of them.

Basic principles

The general rule, with several important exceptions, states that property acquired during the duration of the marriage is marital; that acquired before or after the marriage is separate.

Beginning and ending of a marriage

For this purpose, the marriage begins when the parties enter into it legally. It ends when the parties separate in a way that makes clear the marriage is over. Defining this moment can pose a problem in some situations. Some ways to demarcate the clear end of the marriage include one spouse moving out, filing for divorce or disentangling joint finances.


If a spouse receives a gift or inheritance during the marriage, this asset typically remains his or her separate property. Such cases tend to be more straightforward if it is clear that the intention of the gift or bequest was only for that one spouse rather than the couple.

Complex assets

Sometimes, a portion of an asset may be marital property and yet another portion remain separate. This can happen if one spouse buys a house prior to the marriage. Then the couple proceeds to live in it, continues to pay the mortgage and makes improvements out of joint funds. Another common scenario may arise when one spouse started a business and the other spouse then contributed and increased its value. Determining proper distribution in such cases may entail consulting financial and valuation experts.

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