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The divorce process

This information only applies in England and Wales.

If you have been married for at least one year but things haven't worked out, you can file for divorce. The divorce process essentially consists of three stages: (1) filing a divorce petition form; (2) applying for the decree nisi; and (3) applying for the decree absolute. If you are dissolving a civil partnership the steps detailed below are largely the same, but some of the terminologies are different.

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 permanently broken down (for more information, read Grounds for divorce)

  • 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

Filing for divorce

The first step of the divorce process is to complete a divorce petition form, stating, amongst other things:

  • the full names and addresses of both spouses
  • the names and dates of birth of any children from the marriage (even if they are over 18), and
  • the ground(s) for divorce  

Two copies of the divorce petition form (three copies if you have named someone with whom your spouse had an affair) should be sent to your nearest family law court along with your marriage certificate (either the original or an official copy from a register office). You should also keep at least one copy for your own records.

You will also have to pay a court fee (currently £550) to begin divorce proceedings upon submitting a petition. You may be eligible for a reduction or exemption from court fees if your income falls below a certain threshold or you are on benefits.

For more information, see the government's guidance.

Responding to a divorce petition

If your spouse has filed for divorce, you will receive the completed divorce petition form, along with a notice of proceedings form (which contains your case number and details of what you must do next) and an acknowledgement of service form. If you agree with the divorce petition, you should fill out the acknowledgement of service form and return this to the court within 8 days.

If you disagree with the divorce petition, you should still complete the acknowledgement of service form but ensure you fill in the part which states you are defending the divorce, within 7 days. Submitted copies of this form will later be sent to your spouse. You will have 21 days after submitting the acknowledgement of service form to explain why you are defending the divorce (known as ‘giving an answer’) using the answer to a divorce petition form. You may have to pay an additional court fee (currently £245) for giving an answer - you might be able to get help paying it.

Additionally, you may decide to start your own divorce proceedings against your spouse by filing your own divorce petition.

Note that if you do not respond within 28 days of receiving a divorce petition, your spouse will be able to proceed with the divorce as if you have agreed.

Court hearing

If a divorce petition is defended, or both spouses issue divorce proceedings, the court will generally hold a hearing to discuss the case, which both parties will normally have to attend to reach an agreement. Legal advice should be taken in the case of a court hearing.

After receiving your spouse’s acknowledgement of service form, you can then apply for a decree nisi. This is essentially a document stating that the court does not see any reason why the divorce cannot proceed.

You can still apply for a decree nisi if your spouse defends the divorce, but you will need to complete section B of the form, requesting a ‘case management hearing’ before the judge. You will then have to attend this hearing to discuss your divorce, at which point the judge will decide whether or not to grant a decree nisi.

Once you have submitted the documentation, if the judge agrees that the divorce can go ahead, you will be sent a certificate of entitlement to a decree, along with the decree nisi itself. Otherwise, you will be sent a ‘notice of refusal of judge’s certificate’ form, stating why a divorce cannot go ahead along with the next steps.

6 weeks and 1 day after receiving your decree nisi, you can apply for the decree absolute. This is the official legal document that ends your marriage.

This delay is designed to allow you and your spouse time to discuss arrangements regarding children and finances. Although you can extend this delay, this should be less than 12 months (otherwise you will need to explain the delay to the court).

After the court has received your application and checked that the time limits have been met and there are no reasons to prevent the divorce, it will send a decree absolute to both now former spouse.

Note that if your spouse filed for divorce but has not applied for a decree absolute, you can apply - but you have to wait for an extra 3 months (on top of the 6 weeks), pay a fee and go to a court hearing with your spouse.

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 is expected to come into force on 6 April 2022 and will modernise the divorce process for couples in England and Wales. The key changes of the Act being:

  • the irretrievable breakdown of marriage being evidenced by a sole or joint statement alone (rather than in reliance on set grounds)
  • no option for one party to contest the divorce
  • terminology being modernised to make family law more accessible to the public 
  • the timeline for the divorce process being reformed and streamlined

 For more information, read No-fault divorce.

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