2009-06-20 / Front Page

'Untying the knot' in Potter, Cameron counties

Counties make big money processing 'no fault' divorces

Potter County processes no-fault divorce cases from out-of-county law firms and clients. The arrangement has also created three jobs in the Prothonotary's office for (from left) Mary Lou Fourness, Judy Yonkin and Cheryl Powell. Rebekah Pepper photo Potter County processes no-fault divorce cases from out-of-county law firms and clients. The arrangement has also created three jobs in the Prothonotary's office for (from left) Mary Lou Fourness, Judy Yonkin and Cheryl Powell. Rebekah Pepper photo Anyone who doesn't know the "story behind the story" might wonder why Potter County is the divorce capital of Pennsylvania.

Probably few know, too, how it came to be.

It's not because couples in the county just can't get along. Rather, it's the result of a system that has been worked out with downstate law firms to process no-fault divorce cases in Potter County.

Clients of these firms avoid higher fees imposed by their own counties to process the cases and Potter County benefits to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars each year.

Cameron County had long been the "divorce capital" of the state and by some standards, the world.

For many years, Cameron County filed thousands of no-fault divorces per year, something that kept the Prothonotary's Office well-staffed and wellfunded. In its heyday, no-fault divorces in Cameron County generated roughly half a million dollars a year, money that not only put people to work filing the cases, but funds that also helped keep taxes in check by cushioning the county's general fund.

But that all changed in 2001 when one of the largest firms left Cameron County, complaining that their filings were taking too long to process. The lawyers claimed then-judge Vernon "Buddy" Roof was dragging his feet on processing no-fault filings because he had a "moral issue" with them. The firm went shopping and found a more congenial business partner in Cameron County's neighbor to the north.

Today, Cameron County processes less than half the filings it once did, while Potter County's Prothonotary Office files close to 6,000 per year.

"That has been extremely costly to people of Cameron County," said Commissioner Glen Fiebig. "When the dust settled, we had lost what amounted to about five mils of taxes annually. And we've been working to get out from behind the eight-ball financially every since."

Despite the loss, Cameron County still benefits from no-fault divorces. The filings still generate roughly $150,000 annually.

In Potter County, that figure topped $250,000 in 2008.

Out of the estimated 6,000 no-fault divorces filed and recorded by the office of Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts Amy Moshier last year, only about 100 involved Potter County citizens.

When Moshier was approached by a law firm inquiring about processing fees, the County Commissioners and Judge John Leete chose to conduct a trial run. When the financial return was verified and other factors considered, the program was renewed and it has been in place ever since.

Use of the revenue is determined by the County Commissioners, who have traditionally set aside the money for capital improvements, automation/technology investments, and other expenses not traditionally financed through the General Fund.

The arrangement has also created three jobs in the Prothonotary's office at the courthouse. A portion of Law Clerk Michael Harmon's compensation is also based on processing of the no-fault divorce cases.

A no-fault divorce is one in which neither spouse is required to prove "fault" or marital misconduct on the part of the other. To obtain a divorce a spouse must merely assert incompatibility or irreconcilable differences, meaning the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This means there is no defense to a divorce petition (so a spouse cannot threaten to "fight" a divorce), there is no derogatory testimony, and marital misconduct cannot be used to achieve a division of property favorable to the "innocent" spouse. Increasingly popular since the 1960s, no fault divorce is in effect in every state except

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