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Divorce vs dissolution

If you are dissolving a civil partnership (known as 'dissolution') the steps detailed below are largely the same. However, some of the terminology is different. The information in this guide also applies to the process of ending a civil partnership. For clarity, the terms ‘divorce’ and ‘spouse’ include ‘dissolution’ of a civil partnership and ‘civil partner’ respectively.

Who can apply for divorce?

You can apply for divorce on your own or jointly (ie in agreement) with your spouse. The party or parties who apply for a divorce are known as ‘applicants’.

To apply for divorce in England and Wales all of the following must apply: 

  • you have been married for at least one year

  • your relationship has irretrievably (ie permanently) broken down. The only evidence required to support this is a statement by one or both applicants asserting that an irretrievable breakdown has occurred

  • your marriage is legally recognised in the UK (including same-sex marriage)

  • the UK is your permanent home or the permanent home of your spouse

Can I defend or dispute a divorce?

Since 6 April 2022, defending a divorce is no longer possible. The non-applicant party cannot contest (ie challenge) the application, because the applicant has not made any allegations for them to contest (eg by claiming the non-applicant spouse committed adultery, which they deny). In other words, a no-fault divorce doesn’t allow one party to argue that the divorce is the other’s fault.

However, a divorce can still be disputed. This is possible if there is doubt as to: 

  • the jurisdiction governing the marriage or civil partnership (eg if neither party actually lives in England or Wales)

  • the validity of the marriage (eg if it is unclear whether it was legally entered into, or whether it has already ended, for instance in proceedings outside of England and Wales)

1. Applying for divorce and responding to a divorce application

Applying for divorce

The first step of the divorce process is completing a divorce application. This can be a sole application or a joint application (ie the application can be made by one party alone, or by both parties together). A sole application may be more appropriate if your spouse doesn’t agree that you should get a divorce.

You can apply online or using a paper form (form D8), setting out:

  • the full names and addresses of both spouses (and proof of any name changes which have occurred since the marriage) 

  • the marriage or civil partnership certificate

  • a statement of your marriage’s irretrievable breakdown

  • any exceptional reasons why the application should be dealt with urgently (eg if domestic violence is involved)

  • if you want to apply for a financial order (ie a statement from the court regarding how your money and other assets should be split)

You will also have to pay a court fee (currently £593) when you make your divorce application. You may be eligible for a reduction or exemption from court fees if you are on a low income or on benefits.

Serving an application

For sole applications, once the application has been made, either the court or the applicant can ‘serve’ (ie send) notice to the non-applicant spouse. The notice should be accompanied by:

  • a copy of your divorce application stamped by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS)

  • a case number

  • an ‘acknowledgement of service notification

These documents can be sent by email, however, a copy of the papers must also be posted to a physical address by first class post. Doing this informs the non-applicant spouse that a divorce has been applied for. Notice should generally be given within 28 days but extensions may be applied for.

For joint applications, instead of an acknowledgement of service notification, both applicants will be sent an ‘acknowledgement receipt’. Neither spouse needs to respond to the acknowledgement receipt.

If you apply for divorce through a lawyer, they will also have to submit a ‘statement of reconciliation’ which says that they have discussed with you the possibility of reconciliation (ie the possibility of you deciding with your spouse not to end the marriage).

For more information, see the Government's guidance.

Responding to a divorce application

For sole applications, the non-applicant spouse must respond to the acknowledgement of service notification within 14 days. They must state in their response whether they agree with the divorce, or they wish to dispute it.

If they choose to dispute the divorce, they must submit an ‘answer form’ explaining why they are disputing the divorce, and they may have to pay a fee of £245.

For more information about responding to a divorce application, read the Government’s guidance.

Making arrangements for finances and children

Although divorces cannot be defended, you can still ask the court to make decisions about some matters. Including:

  • financial order if you disagree on how your money and other assets are to be split (these should be made before the divorce is finalised)

  • for assistance, if you and your spouse disagree about childcare arrangements following the divorce

Before asking the court to make such decisions, consider using mediation to come to an agreement. Mediators are trained professionals who can help you to discuss possible arrangements and to come to a compromise without going to court. This can help preserve a relationship by preventing you from going through a stressful court case. 

2. Applying for a conditional order

20 weeks after the initial application for divorce, one or both parties can apply for a conditional order (previously known as a 'decree nisi'). This is a document acknowledging that the court has received the statement about the marriage’s irretrievable breakdown and that they will allow the divorce to proceed. 

If the initial application was made by one applicant, they can apply for the conditional order alone. If the initial application was made by both spouses (ie a joint application), both applicants can apply for the conditional order together, or one applicant can apply for the conditional order alone (in which case the application becomes a sole application from that point on).

If the courts agree that your divorce can go ahead, they will issue your conditional order.

3. Applying for a final order

6 weeks and one day after the conditional order was issued by the court, you may apply for a final order (previously a 'decree absolute'). This is the official legal document that ends your marriage. The delay between the application stages is designed to allow you and your spouse time to discuss arrangements regarding children and finances. 

For a joint application, both applicants can apply for the final order, or one applicant can apply alone. If one applicant applies alone, they must first give the other applicant 14 days’ notice that they intend to apply for the final order alone.

For sole applications, either spouse may apply for the final order regardless of which of them made the original application for divorce and the application for the conditional order. However, if the non-applicant spouse is the person applying for the final order, they must wait 3 months first.

Providing there is no reason not to, the courts will issue your final divorce order and the marriage will have officially ended.

For more information on the divorce process, read the Government’s guidance.  

Navigating the divorce process can become complex. Ask a lawyer for help if you have any questions or concerns. If you need help applying for a divorce you can divorce from £250 +VAT with Rocket Lawyer.

If you want to consider an alternative option to divorce, read Separating from your spouse or civil partner. If you live in Scotland, read The divorce process in Scotland.

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