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I have received divorce papers – what should I do?

Being served with divorce papers can be overwhelming and upsetting as it symbolises the end of a marriage or civil partnership. By knowing what you will receive, how to respond and the legal process can reduce some of the confusion and pain.

In referring to divorce, we are not just referring to the end of a marriage, but also to the dissolution of a civil partnership.

What divorce papers will I receive?

If your spouse or civil partner has started divorce or dissolution proceedings against you, the divorce centre will send you the following documents:

  • A copy of their application for divorce or dissolution – This document will contain basic factual information about your marriage or civil partnership and a statement by your spouse or civil partner that the relationship has irretrievably broken down.
  • A Notice of Proceedings – This will contain the case number, details of the type of proceedings that have been issued and an access code if the proceedings were issued online.
  • An Acknowledgment of Service form – This is a court document that the person receiving the divorce/dissolution application (the Respondent) will receive to tell the court that they have received the divorce papers and they acknowledge that their spouse or civil partner wants to end the relationship.

What do I need to do?

As the Respondent you should complete the Acknowledgment of Service form by answering all the questions and return it to the Court. There are 2 possible ways to respond – by post or online.

If the proceedings were commenced online and you have been provided with an access code in the Notice of Proceedings you may be able respond online.

If you do not have an access code you must respond by post. If a Solicitor is representing you, you will not be able to respond online.

Either way, you must respond within 14 days of receiving the Notice of Proceedings.

The Acknowledgment of Service form will ask various questions which you must answer by either ticking the relevant box or providing the information requested such as the date you received the divorce/dissolution application.

At the end of the Acknowledgment of Service form you will be asked to sign a Statement of Truth. If you don’t have a Solicitor acting for you, you should sign and date the Statement of Truth. If a Solicitor is representing you, they will complete this section for you.

The purpose of Statement of Truth is to confirm the information provided is true.

Do I have to respond to a divorce or dissolution?

There is no absolute legal requirement for you to respond to the divorce papers by completing the Acknowledgment of Service. Failure to do so will not stop the divorce or dissolution from going ahead. The only effect is that the proceedings will incur a slight delay and there is a likelihood that additional costs will be incurred that you may have to pay.

What will happen if I do not respond? 

If you refuse to engage in the process by not responding and returning the Acknowledgement of Service form your spouse or civil partner can take the following steps to progress the divorce or dissolution:

Instruct a Process Server

A Process Server is someone who will physically deliver a further set of the divorce documents to the Respondent by visiting their home, workplace, or other known address.

Apply for Deemed Service

If evidence exists to prove that the Respondent has received the divorce papers but has not or is refusing to return the Acknowledgement of Service form it may be possible to apply for Deemed Service. Evidence could include a letter, text message, or email from the Respondent indicating receipt of the Court documents. The Judge will decide whether the evidence is sufficient proof. If proven the Judge will order that the divorce papers are deemed to have been served and the proceedings will continue.

Apply for Alternative Service

Applying for alternative service is where the person seeking the divorce or dissolution will ask the Court for permission to contact the other party by serving notice of the proceedings and the divorce papers to their relative, employer or a third party such as a government body.

Apply for Dispensed Service

Dispensing with service is usually the last resort and is used when all other methods to proceed with your divorce or dissolution have been attempted. If a Judge is satisfied that the person seeking the divorce or dissolution has tried everything possible to find their spouse or civil partner and serve the divorce papers, then a Judge may agree to dispense with service and allow the divorce to proceed without any further involvement of the spouse or civil partner.

What if I do not agree with the divorce or dissolution?

Since the introduction of the no-fault divorce, stopping your spouse or civil partner from divorcing you or dissolving the civil partnership is difficult. Contesting proceedings today is only possible if you have a legal reason to do so. These include:

Jurisdiction – if you of your partner live in another country, the courts in England and Wales may not be able to handle the application for divorce or dissolution.

If you can prove that the marriage or civil partnership was never valid. For example, if the marriage/civil partnership was not conducted in accordance with the laws of the country in which you married, meaning you did not enter a legally legitimate marriage/civil partnership.

If the marriage/civil partnership has already legally ended. For example, if you have already gone through divorce proceedings in another country.

If any of the reasons for contesting a divorce apply, you will need to file an Answer to the application explaining your reason for disputing the proceedings.

Do both parties have to agree to a divorce or dissolution?

Only one party needs to consider the relationship to have irretrievably broken down. Unless you have legal reasons to dispute the divorce, it does not matter whether you disagree with the application for divorce or dissolution. No other facts have a bearing on the divorce process or outcome.

The new divorce law introduced in April 2022 is effectively saying that it takes two to remain in a marriage.

What happens after service of the divorce papers?

Once the service requirements are satisfied with the Court, the person applying for the divorce or dissolution must wait 20 weeks after the start of the proceedings before they can continue with the proceedings. The 20-week period is known as the 20-week period of reflection and its purpose is to reduce conflict and to ensure the decision to end a marriage or civil partnership is a considered one. The 20-week reflection period allows a separating couple time to reflect, consider their situation, receive legal advice, and potentially turn back the process.

During the period of reflection couples could agree to attend relationship counselling. Relationship counselling (also known as ‘couples counselling’ or ‘marriage counselling’) can help couples overcome problems in their relationship if they cannot resolve their difficulties alone. It is an effective form of talking therapy designed to help couples find new ways to resolve conflicts, build trust and improve communication. It offers a couple the opportunity of speaking to an impartial person who has the expertise and skilled training to help them explore and identify their toxic relationship patterns and to help the couple work on changing these.

The ultimate goal of relationship counselling is to work towards a more successful and improved relationship.

Where reconciliation is not possible, the 20-week period provides the couple time to agree important arrangements for the future – such as those involving children, finances, and housing and property.

After 20-weeks has elapsed from the start of proceedings it is possible to apply for a Conditional Order. A Conditional Order is a legal document issued by the Court that says you are entitled to a divorce of your marriage, or a dissolution of your civil partnership.

Following six weeks and one day (43 days) after the Conditional Order is granted you can apply for a Final Order to finalise the divorce or dissolution. The Final Order is the last legal document in the divorce or dissolution process, and it is the document that formally ends your marriage or civil partnership. Once a Final Order is made you are no longer married or in the civil partnership.

Can a divorce or dissolution be stopped once proceedings are started?

Even after a Conditional Order has been granted, a divorce or dissolution can be stopped. It is possible to withdraw an application for divorce/dissolution and an application for a Conditional Order.

If the application is made by a sole applicant, it is possible for that party to withdraw their application before the other party is served. If the application has already been served, then the party that applied for the divorce/dissolution can apply to the court to dismiss the divorce/dissolution application. 

How long does the divorce/dissolution process take?

The absolute minimum time for a divorce or dissolution in the UK is 26 weeks. This takes into account the 20-week reflection period and the 6 weeks waiting period between the Conditional Order and Final Order.

A more realistic timescale taking into account times for service, time to respond and Court waiting times is between 30-40 weeks.



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