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The divorce process in England and Wales

How to apply for divorce

The process for ending a marriage and a civil partnership are exactly the same. The only difference is the terminology used. If you want to end your marriage, you apply for a divorce. If you want to end your civil partnership, you apply for a dissolution.

This guide explains the divorce process and how to apply for a divorce. It does not include the process for resolving issues with money, property, or children. These issues need to be dealt with separately to the divorce or dissolution process.

Step 1 – Start the divorce.  

The first thing you need to do is send your divorce application to court. This can be done online or by post.

You can only get a divorce or dissolution if you have been married or in your civil partnership for at least 1 year. If you have been married or in a civil partnership for less than one year, you may want to consider the possibility of separating from your partner. This can be done informally or formally by entering into a Separation Agreement.

An application for divorce can be made by one person as a sole application, or by the both of you jointly as Joint Applicants as a joint application. There are benefits to issuing a joint application for divorce or dissolution which can be found here. This is usually referred to as an amicable divorce.

Under the new law bought which came into effect in April 2022, you no longer need to give a reason to get a divorce or dissolution – this is sometimes called ‘no fault’ divorce. The only requirement is for one or both of you to confirm that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down.

Step 2 – The Acknowledgement of service

The second stage of the divorce process is the ‘acknowledgement of service’.

This involves demonstrating to the Court that both you and your spouse are aware of the divorce proceedings and have had a chance to respond.

The process will be different depending on whether you apply for divorce jointly with your spouse or on your own.

If the divorce application is a sole application, your spouse or civil partner will have 14 days to return the completed form saying whether they agree to the divorce/dissolution or if they intend to contest it.

Contesting a divorce today is far more difficult than was previously the case. Under the new divorce law, you can only dispute the divorce if you have a legal reason. These include:

  • Jurisdiction – if you of your partner live in another country, the courts in England and Wales may not be handle your application.
  • 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’ve already gone through divorce proceedings in another country.

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

The new law takes away the ability to oppose a divorce and any disagreement is irrelevant in English divorce law.

As the only ground for divorce now is that one or both parties believe the marriage has irretrievably broken down, it does not matter whether you challenge or disagree with the application for divorce. No other facts have a bearing on the divorce process or outcome.

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

If the divorce application is a joint application, you become joint applicants. This means that there is no Respondent to receive an acknowledgment of service form from. Instead, you will both be sent an ‘acknowledgment of service’ receipt to confirm that your joint divorce application is being processed.

Your application will then automatically progress to the next stage of the divorce process.

Step 3 – The reflection period

After the acknowledgement of service stage, your divorce enters a 20-week waiting or reflection period before you can move on to the next stage.

The purpose of the 20-week reflection period is to give you and your partner the time to reflect on whether the marriage can be saved and whether it is possible to have an opportunity to effect a reconciliation. It is the time for the both of you to decide whether the divorce or dissolution is something you definitely want to go ahead.

The period of time also allows time to address other issues such as financial matters or arrangements for children.

Where it may be helpful and safe to receive relationship support, information can be found at: Find Relationship counselling services – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

Step 4 – The Conditional Order

Once 20 weeks have passed, you can apply for a Conditional Order if you want the divorce or dissolution to proceed.

The Conditional Order is the first of the two Orders that make up the divorce process, along with the Final Order.

Once you receive the Conditional Order, the Court has essentially approved your divorce.

You must then wait a further period of six weeks and one day after receiving the Conditional Order before you can apply for the Final Order. It is important to remember that you will still be legally married even once you receive the Conditional Order.

Step 5 – The Final Order

Once six weeks and one day have elapsed after receiving the Conditional Order, you can apply for the Final Order. The Final Order (previously called the Decree Absolute) is the document that legally ends your marriage.

Once the Final Order is granted, your marriage or Civil partnership will be dissolved, and you will be officially free to remarry or enter into a civil partnership.

How long does the divorce process take? 

A straightforward divorce or dissolution will take at least 6 months to complete, even if you are in complete agreement regarding the divorce. It may take longer if you need to resolve issues with money, property, or children, or if one party refuses to cooperate in the divorce process.

Other frequently asked questions

How can I get a quick divorce?

As the divorce process has a built-in timetable the timescale for a divorce is the same for every divorce, and as such there are no quicker divorces.

Whilst the divorce process for a joint application for divorce takes the same amount of time as a sole application; the benefits of a joint application for divorce are:

  • More amicable – Joint proceedings reflect the fact that a couple both agree that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.
  • Easier – By applying for a divorce/dissolution jointly, a couple can navigate the divorce process together. With mutual cooperation and agreement, couples can achieve a divorce without in about 6 to 7 months.
  • No nasty surprises – Both parties are aware of the divorce from the outset.
  • Mutual Involvement – As both parties are fully involved in the process, neither party will feel left out as they are sharing the responsibilities and decisions involved.
  • Emotional preparation – A couple can proceed when they both feel ready – allowing them time to emotionally prepare.
  • Less acrimonious and traumatic – As both parties are jointly involved and have chosen to file together to reach a peaceful resolution, they can focus on the future, and not on the past. This encourages couples to cooperate constructively when considering important issues such as financial arrangements and arrangements for the children.
  • Far cheaper – By using the same divorce professional there is only one legal cost involved (instead of the need to pay two separate legal fees by using two lawyers). Using one divorce professional can save you an average of £2,300 each where the average divorce settlement using two sets of lawyers is £7620.

Do you have to be separated before you can get a divorce? 

You no longer have to be separated to commence divorce proceedings. The only requirement is that you have been married or in your civil partnership for at least 1 year, and one or both of you considers the marriage or civil partnership to have irretrievably broken down.

What is the 20-week holding period for divorce?

As stated above the reason for the 20-week period is to allow a period of reflection and to decide whether the divorce or dissolution is inevitable.

In some circumstances, it is possible to expedite both the 20-week period and the 6-week wait between the conditional and final order, but it is very rare and should only be shortened in exceptional circumstances.

The two most common reasons why a Judge would typically agree to reduce the wait time in the divorce process are in relation to:

  • Illness – where one spouse or civil partner is terminally ill, or has a life-limiting illness, and there’s a chance the no fault divorce may not have concluded before their death.
  • It is in the best interests of a child – for example where a baby is due to be born to one spouse or civil partner, and the parent wishes to remarry before the birth.

 It also allows time to make child arrangements and to agree the division of any money or assets.

Does it matter who files for divorce first UK?

It really does not make any difference who files for divorce first. If you both agree that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down, it is possible to present a joint application to the Court which makes for a more amicable divorce.

What is the minimum time for divorce in the UK?

In order to commence divorce proceedings or proceedings for the dissolution of a civil partnership you must have been in the marriage or civil partnership for at least one year.

The minimum period to complete the normal divorce process is around 6 months.

What are the 5 grounds for divorce UK? 

Since April 2022, there are no longer 5 grounds for divorce. The only reason for divorce now is the irretrievable breakdown of marriage or civil partnership.

What if my spouse refuses to accept the divorce?

As stated above it is very difficult to contest the divorce process and you can only dispute the divorce if you have a legal reason.

A spouse or civil partner however could refuse to engage in the divorce process by not responding to the acknowledgement of service form. This could be their way of “refusing” the divorce.

In reality, these tactics will not stop a divorce or dissolution, but simply slow down and frustrate the process. If this happens there are steps that can be taken to progress with the divorce including:

  1. Applying for Deemed Service

Applying for deemed service is one way to get a divorce in the UK if your spouse refuses to return the acknowledgement of service form. You will have to submit an application to the Court asking for the divorce to proceed without the completed form.

Deemed service will only be granted if you have evidence to prove that your spouse/partner has received the form but has not or is refusing to return it.

  1. Instruct a Process Server to physically serve the divorce papers at your spouse’s home, work, or other known address.
  2. Apply for Alternative Service

Applying for alternative service is where you ask the Court for permission to contact your spouse by serving notice to their relative, employer or a third party.

  1. Apply for Dispensed Service

Dispensing with service is usually the last resort and is used when you have tried all other methods to proceed with your divorce. If a court is satisfied you have tried everything possible to find your ex and serve them divorce papers, then they may agree to dispense with service and allow the divorce to proceed without your spouse’s involvement.

Can I stop my spouse from divorcing me?

Stopping your spouse from proceeding with a divorce or dissolution is difficult. Contesting a divorce today is far more difficult than was previously the case. Under the new divorce law UK you can only dispute the divorce if you have a legal reason. These include:

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

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’ve already gone through divorce proceedings in another country.

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

How long does a divorce take in 2023?

A straightforward divorce or dissolution will take at least 6 months to complete, even if you are in complete agreement regarding the divorce. It may take longer if you need to resolve issues with money, property, or children, or if one party refuses to cooperate in the divorce.

Can I still divorce based on a spouse’s adultery or behaviour?

Yes and no. You can still use their adultery or behaviour as the reason why you consider the marriage to have irretrievably broken down, but you cannot specifically cite adultery or behaviour as a ground for divorce under no-fault divorce.

Is it possible to apply for a quick no fault divorce?

It takes on average 37.5 weeks from start to finish to finalise a divorce or dissolution. However, if you make a joint application for divorce or dissolution this may shorten the process as an Acknowledgment of Service will not have to be sent as both parties are applying for the divorce/dissolution.

Who pays the legal fees in the divorce?

It is usually the person or persons who commence the divorce procedure. Here is a helpful video on How to Get Help with Divorce Fees in the UK

How much does a divorce cost?

For a straightforward divorce without dealing with any other matter we charge £200 including VAT, plus Court fees.

Will I have to go to court?

No. The entire process is done online or by correspondence and you will not have to attend any Court hearings for the divorce.

Is it now easier to get divorced?

The actual divorce procedure has not changed significantly apart from the introduction of the reflection period. Interestingly, between April and June 2023, applications for divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership fell by 30% from the same period the previous year when the new divorce law was introduced. It is too early to say whether this is as a result of a spike of divorces following the introduction of no fault divorce, or whether there is a downward trend in divorce generally. What is clear, is that by removing fault from divorce it is now easier for someone to leave an unhappy marriage or partnership.

What could cause the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage?

Issues that could cause a marriage to irretrievably break down include: extra-marital affairs, lack of sexual intimacy, financial problems, loss of trust, being separated, inability to communicate, violent or abusive behaviour, growing apart due to different goals and interests, different political or religious beliefs.

 

 

 

 

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