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Divorce and dissolution of civil partnership procedure

Divorce and the dissolution of civil partnership take a minimum of 26 weeks and can usually be completed without you ever needing to meet a judge. Please see below for information about each of the stages of the divorce procedure.

Key Points

  • There’s no such thing as a quickie divorce in the UK
  • Providing you’ve both finalised as much as possible beforehand and have no complex matters to resolve, the process from filing the petition to the granting of the final order takes about 7 months
  • You don’t usually need to go to court to get a divorce
  • You could also get an annulment or judicial separation instead of a divorce
  • Financial settlements and child arrangements are separate to the divorce process, they can be decided before, during or after

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Process FAQs

Legal Language

  • Application (previously petition) – the application for a divorce or dissolution of civil partnership
  • Applicant (previously petitioner) – the person who applies for the divorce or dissolution of civil partnership (this can be both partners)
  • Sole applicant – where only one party applies for the divorce/dissolution
  • Applicant 1 and applicant 2 – where both parties apply for the divorce/dissolution
  • Respondent – the spouse or civil partner of the sole applicant
  • Conditional order (previously decree nisi) – the order by a court stating that there is no reason that you cannot get a divorce/dissolution and the date on which you can apply for the final order. The conditional order cannot be applied for until a minimum of 20 weeks from the court processing your application
  • Final order (previously decree absolute) – the date the marriage/civil partnership is formally ends – application must be at least six weeks from the date of the conditional order
  • Dispute (previously defend) – disputing the application (now only possible on very narrow grounds)
  • Judicial separation order (previously judicial separation decree) – document that confirms that parties to a divorce/dissolution are legally separated
  • Nullity of marriage order (previously decree of nullity) – document that confirms that the marriage/civil partnership is null and void or voidable

Stages of divorce/dissolution

Stage 1: Make the application

You can apply for a divorce or dissolution of civil partnership on your own (sole applicant) or together with your partner (joint applicant) if you agree to. We can make the application on your behalf either on a sole or joint basis. Generally, the application will be filed on-line via the HMCTS portal. In some cases, a paper application will be needed. You will need to pay the application fee of £593 at this stage.

If you are a sole applicant, the application will be issued by the court then served directly on your spouse/civil partner at the address or email address you have provided. If the documents are sent by email, a paper notification is also sent to your spouse/civil partner at the same time. If you do not have an email address for your spouse/civil partner do not worry, the papers can be sent by post. You must however have a postal address for your spouse/civil partner, even if you want the papers to be sent by email. If you do not have a postal address, a different procedure is needed.

Joint applicants will need to agree who will be applicant 1 and who will be applicant 2. When making applications digitally, applicant 1 will pay the court fee. When making the application by paper, the parties can agree who will pay it.

Where a sole application is made, this cannot be changed to joint applicants. However, joint applicants can switch to being sole applicants at either conditional or final order stages.

Stage 2: Application service

The application is served (sent) by the court on the respondent in England or Wales. The application can be served by email – which will generally be the case if the applicant has provided both an email address and postal address for the respondent. A letter is then sent to the respondent to tell them that the application has been made and that a link to view the application has been provided by email.
The application can be served by post if no email address is available for the respondent, or the applicant doesn’t want it served by email. If the applicant doesn’t have a postal address for the respondent, they can apply for alternative service to be by email only. If the applicant does not have an email address or details of where the respondent is living, alternative steps are required, and your solicitor will be able to advise.

If the court receives an undeliverable notice for the service, the applicant can request that the application is served to an alternative address. After this, the court will not try to serve the application again and the applicant must make alternative arrangements to serve the application.

Applicants can arrange service within 28 days of issue, but certain rules must be followed. Applications that need to be served outside England and Wales must be arranged by the applicant as the court will not serve applications in these circumstances, again certain rules must be followed.

Where there are joint applicants and application is made digitally, once applicant 1 has provided the relevant information online, applicant 2 will receive an email asking them to review the application and add any further relevant information. This will then be sent back to applicant 1.

Where paper applications are made by joint applicants, applicant 1 will complete their part of the document and then send it to applicant 2 to complete. The application is then agreed by both parties. Where a solicitor acts for both applicant 1 and 2 then the joint application must be on paper.

Whether completing digitally or manually, both applicants will need to sign a statement of truth. If the application is made digitally, respondents can respond digitally.

Where a sole application is made, this cannot be changed to joint applicants. However, joint applicants can switch to being sole applicants at either conditional or final order stages.

Stage 3: Responding to the application

The respondent in a sole application, or both the applicants in a joint application, will receive an acknowledgement of service to complete. That document must be completed and returned within 14 days of receipt (previously 7 days.)

A respondent to a sole application may only issue their own application seeking the same relief (unless the first application has been dismissed or finally determined) if they have permission of the court.

Stage 4: Application for a conditional order

20 weeks after the application is issued, either the sole applicant, or one or both of the joint applicants can apply for the conditional order, which will be made if the court confirms entitlement. If only one of joint applicants wishes to apply, for example if the other applicant is not cooperating, they can apply for the conditional order solely, but they must send a copy of the conditional order application to the other party (applicant) and provide 14 days’ notice. If the court agrees to the conditional order, the order is made. At this stage, the other joint applicant becomes the respondent.

Stage 5: Application for final order

Six weeks after the conditional order is made, either the sole or one or both of the joint applicants can give notice that the conditional order should be made final. If only one of the joint applicants wishes to give notice, for example if the other is not cooperating, they must give the other applicant 14 days’ notice that they are going to do so. By doing this, the applicant who has given notice that the order is made final, becomes the sole applicant and the other party becomes the respondent.

If the sole applicant does not apply for the final order six weeks after the conditional order, the respondent can apply after three months.

The final order is then made and the marriage or civil partnership is dissolved.

If there are unresolved financial and property matters in your divorce/dissolution, especially involving pensions, then it is often advisable to halt at the conditional order stage until such time as these matters have been fully addressed. This is because the grant of a final order may adversely affect your position, for example, causing you to lose the right of significant pension benefits and inheritance from your spouse/civil partner; also losing your right to occupy the family home if it is owned in your spouse’s/civil partner’s sole name.

You should note that if you are the respondent in the divorce/dissolution, you could be prevented on remarriage/civil partnership from bringing financial claims against your former spouse/civil partner, so it is essential that you seek legal advice before remarriage/ civil partnership if the finances haven’t yet been fully dealt with. This is to avoid what is commonly called ‘the remarriage trap’. As an applicant’s claims can be set out in the divorce/dissolution application, the same trap does not extend to them (as long as the applicant has set these claims out in the divorce application), except that spousal maintenance cannot be claimed from their former spouse/civil partner if they do remarry/enter into another civil partnership.

Many people don’t realise that there is no time limit on bringing financial claims and wrongly assume that once the final order has been granted, this brings financial claims to an end. It doesn’t. This is why it’s important to secure a clean break order within your divorce/dissolution, as this dismisses all future potential claims you have against each other where appropriate.

You would also need to update your will after the divorce/dissolution as the award of the final order would invalidate any gift to your former spouse and could result in partial or full intestacy.

Divorce processes: FAQs

Does it matter to the court whose fault it is? How does it affect the financial arrangements or child arrangements?

It doesn’t usually matter if you are the applicant or the respondent: neither is looked on more favourably than the other in awarding settlements or in deciding child arrangements.
In respect of child arrangements, if there are safeguarding concerns then the court will look at these separately and determine what steps need to be taken.

When looking at assets of the marriage, the court can look at conduct, but it must be ‘obvious and gross’ for a judge to take it into account. This can include:

  • Domestic violence or sexual abuse –this could affect financial settlements to a spouse who may have been permanently injured as a result of violence.
  • Financial misconduct – gambling or reckless expenditure can result in a financial penalty.

How long does it take to get a divorce/dissolution of civil partnership? Can you get a ‘quickie’ divorce/dissolution?

The general minimum time in which a divorce or dissolution of civil partnership can be achieved in England and Wales is 26 weeks.

There isn’t really such a thing as a quickie divorce in the UK. The courts have a timeframe that often cannot be deviated from, since there is a compulsory six-week and one day gap between the conditional order being granted and application for the final order. The time it takes to get a divorce can also vary depending on the efficiency and speed of the divorce centre which handles the paperwork.

In special circumstance you can apply to expedite the divorce, for example due to terminal illness. An application would need to be submitted to the court to explain the position and a judge would then consider this.

Can you dispute a divorce/dissolution application?

Where there is a sole application, the respondent cannot dispute that the marriage/civil partnership has broken down. Disputes can only be made in limited circumstances. These are:

  • Jurisdiction – the court cannot conduct the proceedings because, for example neither of the couple lives in England or Wales
  • Validity – the couple are not legally married/in a civil partnership
  • The marriage or civil partnership has already ended, for example where the couple divorced/dissolved a civil partnership outside of England or Wales.
  • Fraud or failure of procedure.

Do you need to go to court to get a divorce/dissolution of civil partnership?

You won’t usually have to go to court to be granted a divorce/dissolution. You would only need to go to court if your spouse is disputing the divorce, which can only be done on the basis of jurisdiction, validity, fraud or failure of procedure or to argue about who should pay the costs if costs are being sought from the respondent and if this is not agreed.

However, you may need to go to court for other matters if you can’t agree – these include to rectify your financial affairs and to decide on any child arrangements. These are separate from the divorce process though.

Are there any alternatives to divorce/dissolution for ending a marriage/civil partnership?

Annulment

It is possible to end your marriage (or dissolve your civil partnership) by getting an annulment.

You can get an annulment at any point after your marriage – whereas you can get divorced only if you’ve been married for a year. If you’re going to apply for annulment, it’s best done within three years of the date of marriage. There are two situations in which your marriage could be annulled: the first is that your marriage wasn’t legally valid (void); and the second is that your marriage is defective (voidable).

Void or legally invalid marriages are those where:

  • One of you was under 16
  • You are closely related (even if you weren’t aware of this)
  • One of you was already married or in a civil partnership

Void or legally invalid marriages are then treated as if they have never existed, i.e. – that you’ve never been married or in a civil partnership.

Voidable or defective marriages are those where:

  • An opposite sex marriage hasn’t been consummated by normal sexual intercourse either by wilful refusal or inability by either spouse
  • One or both of you didn’t consent to the marriage/civil partnership, for example you were forced, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or mentally ill
  • Your spouse/civil partner was aware that they had a sexually transmitted disease which could be passed to you, and they didn’t tell you
  • Your spouse was aware that they were pregnant with someone else’s child at the time of your marriage, and they didn’t tell you

Voidable or defective marriages will be treated by the law as having been valid until the point they were annulled.

You’ll usually have to go to court to get an annulment, even if you both agree to the annulment. The annulment process starts with one of you filling out a nullity application. You’ll send two copies of this to the family courts and keep one for yourself. Your spouse/civil partner then has eight days to respond to this application, agreeing to the annulment. If they agree, you can then apply for a conditional order. You’ll also need to submit a statement supporting the truth of what you claimed in your nullity petition. Once your conditional order is granted, you can then apply for the final order. If the courts are happy that you satisfy the reasons for annulment, they’ll send you the order. You would then be no longer married or in a civil partnership.

Judicial separation

Some people, perhaps for religious reasons or because they have not been married or in a civil partnership for 12 months, may wish to separate without divorcing or ending a civil partnership. In this case, they may wish to to apply for a judicial separation which will mean that they are legally separated but not divorced or have dissolved a civil partnership.

Applications for a judicial separation can be made soley or jointly but must be made using the paper system. For applicants who have started a joint application for a judicial separation order but find themselves in a situation where they are unable to continue with it, perhaps because the other party is not cooperating, it is possible to switch the application from joint to sole. This can only happen during the application for judicial separation order.

Disputing a judicial separation can only be done on the basis of:

  • Jurisdiction – the court cannot conduct the proceedings because, for example neither of the couple lives in England or Wales
  • Validity – the couple are not legally married/in a civil partnership
  • The marriage or civil partnership has already ended, for example where the couple divorced/dissolved a civil partnership outside of England or Wales.
  • Fraud or failure of procedure.

When are arrangements agreed for the finances, house and children?

The divorce/dissolution procedure is separate from the arrangements you make for your children, and for your assets such as finances and property. You can agree any of these arrangements before, during or after your divorce/dissolution.

It’s important to note that, in England and Wales, there are no time limits for making a financial claims against your former spouse/civil partner. This means that you and your spouse/civil partner can continue to make financial claims (and counter-claims) on each other even after your conditional order has been granted and you are fully divorced/your civil partnership has been dissolved by way of final order. Financial claims remain open unless they have been specifically dealt with by a final court order.
However, remarriage can affect the validity of some financial claims either if the applicant has not set out their claims in the divorce application or it the respondent remarries or enters a civil partnership. Take legal advice before you remarry!

The 2015 case of Wyatt & Vince reminds us why it is so important to get a ‘clean break order’ that prevents any future financial claims against each other.

What other dispute resolutions can be used in divorce/dissolution?

We encourage all divorcing and separating couples to consider different dispute resolution options when they can’t agree on any issues. This is known as alternative dispute resolution or ADR and can include solicitor negotiation, arbitration, mediation and roundtable meetings

Not all of the options will be right for you. Your solicitor will be able to discuss the options suitable for your case with you.

Whilst ADR can be very successful, sometimes an agreement cannot be reached and if that is the case, it’s likely that you will need to go to court, where a judge can impose court orders to settle things, whether they are financial remedies or child arrangements.

Are divorce/dissolution settlements taxable?

They can be. This is a complex issue and you will need to take specialist tax advice as there may be capital gains tax implications.

Does divorce/dissolution invalidate a will?

Once you divorce/dissolve a civil partnership, the law will treat the situation as if your former partner had died. This means that any property/interest in property or gifts bequeathed to your former partner will fall back into residue, i.e. – what is left from an estate following the payment of debts, executor’s fees, funeral and legal expenses, and after any specific gifts or sums of cash have been accounted for.

It is recommended that you make a new will as soon as you have decided to separate. This way, any decisions related to the provision of your children or beneficiaries can be made immediately clear. As divorce/dissolution does not invalidate your will, you can make a new one before the final order, safe in the knowledge that it will remain valid after your divorce/dissolution is final and then update it once a financial settlement has been achieved.

What do divorce/dissolution papers look like?

This depends on whether you are a sole applicant, joint applicants or respondent.

If you are the sole applicant or joint applicant’s you will have a divorce application to complete, an application for conditional order and an application for final order. If you are instructing a solicitor, they will assist you with these.

If you are the respondent, you generally only have to complete an acknowledgment of service. If you are joint applicants, both applicants also have to complete an acknowledgement of service. All applications are on A4 paper or accessed through the HMCTS digital portal.

Even if you are respondent, you will still receive copies of the conditional order and final order from the court. If you are instructing a solicitor, your solicitor will obtain these for you and send them to you.

Are divorce/dissolution proceedings public record?

Divorce records in the UK are public record; however, they are not available online.

The location of these records will depend on:

  • the country of the UK in which the divorce was filed
  • the year in which it was filed

England and Wales

1858–1937: National Archives of England

After 1937: General Register Office of England and/or National Archives

What divorce/dissolution papers do I need to remarry/enter into a civil partnership?

You will need to produce your final order if you intend to remarry/enter into a civil partnership. This can be obtained from the court that initially issued it. If you don’t know the court, you can ask the Central Family Court. Charges will be administered both for a copy of the document and the court’s time in searching for it.
However, before remarriage/civil partnership please make sure you have sought advice as to how your financial claims from your previous marriage/civil partnership may be affected. You may forfeit your claims against your former spouse/civil partner upon remarriage/civil partnership.

Does divorce/dissolution sever a joint tenancy?

If you are joint tenants who have divorced/dissolved a civil partnership, the rules of joint tenancy continue to apply; namely, that you are prohibited from selling or remortgaging the property without the other’s consent, and that the property will automatically pass to the other person in the event of one of you dying.

However, at any point in a joint tenancy, one party can choose to ‘severe the joint tenancy’. Once this occurs, both parties become ‘tenants in common’, at which point different rules apply.
Being divorced /civil partnership dissolved does not automatically sever the joint tenancy.

Can a divorce/dissolution application be served at work?

If you have already issued a divorce/dissolution application but your spouse/civil partner is not co-operating, you can arrange to have them personally served by either a process server or court bailiff. Personal service can take place at work, if needed.

If you cannot locate your spouse/civil partner but have made all reasonable attempts to locate them, you may apply to the courts for either substituted service, for example sending the application to their work, or you may apply to the court to dispense with service (to allow your divorce/dissolution to proceed without serving the other party. You should seek advice on this matter.

When divorced/civil partnership dissolved, what is your name?

Whether divorced/civil partnership dissolved or not, you are legally able to change your name by deed poll at any time. When you divorce or dissolve a civil partnership, you are entitled to keep your existing surname or change it by change of name deed or deed poll.

If you change your name during divorce proceedings, you must provide the court (and your solicitor) with a copy of your change of name deed. Your divorce documents must match your current name.

What divorce/dissolution papers do I need?

You will deal with several documents over the course the divorce/dissolution proceedings. They are as follows:

  • D8 divorce/dissolution application — This is the main divorce/dissolution document. It is used to begin divorce/dissolution proceedings and first needs to be filed with the court.
  • Acknowledgement of service — Your spouse/civil partner will be sent a copy of the D8 divorce/dissolution petition that includes an ‘acknowledgement of service’ form. They will be required to complete the acknowledgement form before proceedings can continue.
  • Conditional order — The next document you need to apply for is the conditional order. This is the stage where a court will decide whether you are entitled to a divorce/dissolution and whether your divorce/dissolution can proceed. This cannot be applied for until at least 20 weeks after your divorce/dissolution application has been issued by the court.
  • Final order — You can apply for this final document no less than six weeks one day after the conditional order has been pronounced. The final order is definitive proof that your marriage/civil partnership has ended.

Definition FAQs

What is a divorce/dissolution order application?

This is the new name for the divorce petition – the document that starts the divorce/dissolution process.

Who is the applicant?

This is the new word for the petitioner. It is the spouse or civil partner who begins the divorce or dissolution of civil partnership procedure by filing the application.

There can be a sole applicant (one person divorces the other – the respondent) or joint applicants where you can both apply for a divorce/dissolution together at the same time.

Who is the respondent?

The respondent in divorce or dissolution proceedings is the spouse or civil partner who receives the application; the one who is ‘being divorced’.
Or where there are joint applicants, the respondent is the other applicant – in this situation you are both applicants and respondents in the same application.

What is ‘service’?

Service is the word used for the process where the divorce/dissolution application is sent to and received by the spouse/partner to whom they’re addressed. There are specific rules that have to be followed for service. Service can generally be affected by email, post or personally by hand using a process server.

What is an ‘acknowledgement of service’?

This is the form that is sent out automatically to every respondent. It is sent with the divorce/dissolution application and a notice of the proceedings. The acknowledgement sets out several standard questions for the respondent to answer. The respondent (or sometimes their solicitor) must sign the acknowledgement and return it to court. The respondent has 14 days to return the acknowledgement of service.

The acknowledgment of service will usually be completed on the HMCTs portal.

What is ‘address for service’?

This is the email or postal address of the respondent, to which the divorce/dissolution application is delivered.

What is a ‘prayer’ in divorce/dissolution proceedings?

The prayer is a standard section of the divorce/dissolution application. This section lists the requests the applicant(s) is/are making, in particular this is that the marriage/civil partnership be dissolved and whether financial claims need to be addressed. Ticking the box for financial claims does not automatically start financial remedy proceedings – it essentially reserves the right to pursue these claims and it be referred to as “setting out your claims.” It is generally standard practice to include this claim in your divorce/dissolution application.

This list in the prayer can cause confusion and anxiety for a respondent spouse/civil partner. Many respondents think that by acknowledging the divorce /dissolution application, they’re agreeing to pay all the possible financial orders set out in the prayer. This isn’t the case: it’s simply describing that, since nobody knows yet what the final financial details will be, these are the possible orders that could be made by the court, in the event it is asked to do so. To exclude these possible orders from the prayer may complicate processes later on. If and when an applicant decides to pursue any of the financial orders, a separate application must be filed on ‘form A’ or ‘form A1’.

What does ‘ancillary’ relief mean?

Ancillary relief is a legal term, derived from Latin, meaning financial claims ‘ancillary’ or ‘incidental’ to the divorce/dissolution application. It isn’t very layman friendly and, for these reasons has been replaced with more modern terminology known as ‘financial remedies’.

What is the main suit?

This refers to the paper exercise of dissolving the marriage or civil partnership. Lawyers usually regard this as the least contentious aspect of a divorce if the parties have children or financial issues to resolve. The main suit is the term used to describe the divorce/dissolution proceedings to dissolve the marriage/civil partnership.

What is a clean break order?

This is an order that can be made in divorce/dissolution proceedings after the conditional order which sets out the division of assets and effectively dismisses future financial remedy claims between divorcing spouses/couples dissolving a civil partnership. It can be either a clean break on capital only, keeping maintenance claims alive, or it can be a total clean break between spouses/civil partners in life and on death. The clean break order can be made by consent where parties agree or can be imposed by a judge at a final hearing. Legal advice should be sought before entering into a clean break or financial order.

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