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Divorce Procedure

An uncontested divorce usually takes about 6 months to finalise, provided that service doesn’t become a problem, and can usually be completed by way of a paper exercise that doesn’t require you to ever 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 decree absolute takes about 6 months
  • You don’t need to go to court to get a divorce – only if your spouse defends the 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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Stage 1: File the petition

The divorce petition will be prepared by us on your instruction then lodged at our nearest divorce centre in Doncaster together with payment of the filing fee of £550. The papers will be issued by the court then posted directly to your spouse at the address for service provided. It then takes the court about 2 – 3 weeks to issue and serve the petition on your spouse.

Stage 2: Acknowledging service

Your spouse has 7 days from service to complete an ‘acknowledgement of service’ form in reply to your petition, indicating whether or not he/she intends to defend the divorce and to admit any adultery if alleged. It often takes a little longer to deal with the acknowledgement than the rules provide for (to allow your spouse time to consult with a solicitor for advice on the papers) and therefore the time limit isn’t strictly enforced.

Acknowledgements are, however, usually received into court within 3 weeks of your spouse receiving the petition and Doncaster Court then processes a sealed copy of the form to us. We are then ready to progress to stage three.

Defended divorces are very rare as they are discouraged by solicitors for not achieving any positive result. They simply increase the time, acrimony and cost of the case. Nearly all petitions, therefore, proceed undefended. Even when your spouse doesn’t agree with all that you have said about his/her behaviour, specific wording can be used on the acknowledgement to protect his/her position which still enables the divorce to proceed undefended.

If your spouse fails to file his/her acknowledgement in court, we must then arrange for a duplicate set of the divorce papers to be personally served upon him/her. This is because we must satisfy the court that your spouse is aware of the proceedings before the divorce can continue. In rare circumstances, service can be ‘deemed’ or ‘dispensed with’. We can advise you about these matters if service becomes a problem in your case.

Stage 3: Decree nisi application

This stage involves completion of an application form with a supporting statement, usually exhibiting a copy of your spouse’s acknowledgement. We will prepare the papers for you and submit them to court on your behalf after you have checked and signed them. A judge will then consider the papers in our absence and raise questions if he has any, but usually the judge will simply certify that you are entitled to a decree nisi and notify us of the date when this will be pronounced (approximately 8 weeks later).

Stage 4: Decree nisi pronouncement

This is the penultimate stage of your divorce and the process from issuing the petition (stage 1) up to now will most likely have taken around 4 – 5 months, depending on how quickly the acknowledgement was filed. You don’t need to attend at court for the decree nisi pronouncement unless there is a disputed claim for costs against your spouse within your petition (we will advise you about your options for claiming costs when taking your instructions to prepare the petition).

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

Stage 5: Decree absolute

The earliest date when a petitioner can apply for decree absolute is 6 weeks and 1 day after the decree nisi (a respondent has to wait a further 3 month period before applying if the petitioner fails to do so and this involves a hearing and payment of a fee). The petitioner’s application is usually processed immediately without a hearing or fee, although it can take the court up to 2 weeks to issue the certificate. It is this second and final decree which brings your marriage to an end and leaves you free to remarry. You should note that if you are the respondent in the divorce, you would be prevented on remarriage from bringing any financial claims against your former spouse, so it is essential that you seek legal advice before remarriage if the finances haven’t yet been fully dealt with. This is to avoid what is commonly called ‘the remarriage trap’. As a petitioner’s claims are set out in the prayer of the petition as standard practice, the same trap does not extend to them, except that spousal maintenance cannot be claimed from their former spouse if they do remarry.

Many people don’t realise that there is no time limit on bringing financial claims and wrongly assume that once the decree absolute 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, which dismisses all future potential claims you have against each other where appropriate.

You would also need to update your will after the divorce as the pronouncement of decree absolute would invalidate any gift to your former spouse and could result in partial or full intestacy.

Divorce processes: FAQs

What is an uncontested/undefended/no fault divorce?

An undefended or uncontested divorce is when the respondent does not actively oppose or challenge the petition by filing an answer or defence. It refers simply to the main suit and doesn’t extend to children or financial issues.

A no fault divorce refers to petitions filed on a 2 or 5 year separation. When you rely on the facts of adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, you will usually need to prove that these behaviours are the fault of your spouse. However, you can use the fact of unreasonable behaviour to both agree some mild content about their behaviour, effectively making it a ‘no fault’ divorce.

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 petitioner or the respondent: neither is looked on more favourably than the other in awarding settlements or in deciding child arrangements. Usually admitting to adultery or unreasonable behaviour doesn’t disadvantage someone in the eyes of a judge (except possibly relating to a main suit costs order).

However, there is relevant conduct that could affect court orders, 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 child arrangements or financial settlements to a spouse who may have been permanently injured as a result of violence.
  • Substance abuse – anything that affects the welfare of your child could subsequently be taken into account when deciding child arrangements.
  • Criminal activity – this can range from abducting children to drug dealing, which may affect orders on child arrangements.
  • Financial misconduct – gambling or reckless expenditure can result in a financial penalty.

How long does it take to get a divorce? Can you get a ‘quickie’ divorce?

On average it takes 6 months to be granted a divorce, providing you have agreed as much detail as you can in advance and there are few complex matters still to be disputed and resolved.

There isn’t really such a thing as a quickie divorce in the UK. The courts have a timeframe which often cannot be deviated from, since there is a compulsory six-week and one day gap between the decree nisi being pronounced and the petitioner applying for a decree absolute. There is also usually a period of 8 weeks between the judge receiving the application for the decree nisi and the date for the pronouncement.

The time it takes to get a divorce can also vary depending on the efficiency and speed of the local divorce centre which handles the paperwork.

We often hear in the press about celebrities getting a ‘quickie divorce’ – taking less than 5 minutes. This is not factually accurate as everyone goes through the same divorce process – celebrity or not! (There are, however, exceptional circumstances which could speed up a divorce, such as a spouse being terminally ill.) The ‘5 minute divorce’ announced by the media usually refers to the decree nisi pronouncement hearing in court, which is very quick.

Do you need to go to court to get a divorce?

You won’t usually have to go to court to be granted a divorce, as the process is now mainly paper-based. You would only need to go to court if your spouse is defending the divorce, which is a rare occurrence, or to argue about who should pay the petitioner’s costs if they are seeking costs 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 for ending a marriage?

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.

Voidable or defective marriages are those where:

  • The marriage hasn’t been consummated by normal sexual intercourse, by refusal or inability by either spouse
  • One or both of you didn’t consent to the marriage, for example you were forced, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or mentally ill
  • Your spouse 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 petition. You’ll send two copies of this to the family courts and keep one for yourself. Your spouse then has 8 days to respond to this petition, agreeing to the annulment. If they agree, you can then apply for a conditional order, or decree nisi. You’ll also need to submit a statement supporting the truth of what you claimed in your nullity petition. Once your decree nisi is granted, you can then apply to have it made absolute – this is your decree of nullity. If the courts are happy that you satisfy the reasons for annulment, they’ll send you the decree. Now you’re no longer married!

Judicial separation

You can be granted a judicial separation if you have religious or moral reasons for not divorcing. These days, however, judicial separation petitions are very rare and when they are used, often convert to a divorce mid – process.

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

The divorce 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.

It’s important to note that, in England and Wales, there are no time limits for making a financial claim against your former spouse. This means that you and your spouse can continue to make financial claims (and counter-claims) on each other even after your decree absolute has been granted and you are fully divorced. However, if the respondent remarries, he/she cannot make a further claim.

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 if we can’t agree during our divorce proceedings?

This depends on what aspects of your divorce you can’t agree on. If you can’t both agree that you are going to get divorced – that is, that one of you defends the divorce and doesn’t consent to it, then this requires significant legal advice. It will be a lengthy and costly process. However, it is very rare that a divorce is defended or contested in this way, as most people don’t have the money, time or energy for it!

We encourage all divorcing and separating couples to consider different dispute resolution options when they can’t agree. 

If you’ve exhausted these resolution options, 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.

What is a matrimonial order application?

This is the new name for the divorce petition – the document that starts the divorce process. However the term ‘divorce petition’ is still widely used and perhaps better known.

Who is the petitioner?

The petitioner is the spouse or civil partner who begins the divorce or dissolution of civil partnership procedure by filing the proceeding petition

Who is the respondent?

The respondent in divorce or dissolution proceedings is the spouse or civil partner who receives the petition; the one who is ‘being divorced’.

What is ‘service’?

Service is the word used for the process where legal papers are delivered to and received by the spouse to whom they’re addressed. Service can be effected by post or personally by hand using a process server. Sometimes a judge will deem service to be effective by posting documents through a particular letterbox. Occasionally a judge can order substituted service: e.g. via a relative, an advert in a newspaper or even in a Facebook posting. In exceptional circumstances, a judge has the power to dispense with service if satisfied that all reasonable efforts have been made to find and serve the respondent.

What is an ‘acknowledgement of service’?

This is the form that is sent out automatically to every respondent. It is sent with the divorce petition and a notice of the proceedings. The acknowledgement sets out several standard questions for the respondent to answer, including whether or not they intent to defend the divorce. The respondent (or sometimes their solicitor) must sign the acknowledgement and return it to court. This is supposed to happen within a week of receiving the divorce papers but, in practice, more time is usually given to allow sufficient time for the respondent to seek legal advice.

What is ‘address for service’?

This is the postal address of the respondent spouse, to which the divorce petition is delivered. It can be the home address, a c/o address or the respondent’s solicitor’s address (if they have a solicitor and have given instructions for their solicitor to receive the petition on their behalf).

What is a ‘prayer’ in divorce proceedings?

The prayer is a standard section of the divorce petition. Every prayer begins with the words “The petitioner therefore prays:” and then lists requests such as the marriage being dissolved and whether costs are being claimed from the respondent, and then goes on to list the possible financial remedy orders a court can make.

This list in the prayer can cause confusion and anxiety for a respondent spouse. Many respondents think that by acknowledging the divorce petition, 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 a petitioner decides to pursue any of the financial orders, a separate application must be filed on ‘form A’.

What does ‘ancillary’ relief mean?

Ancillary relief is a legal term, derived from Latin, meaning financial claims ‘ancillary’ or ‘incidental’ to the divorce petition. 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. However, people can still get very upset when reading negative allegations about their behaviour or adultery, which is why Resolution is campaigning to introduce a new ‘no fault’ divorce law. We’ll keep you updated with any changes introduced.

What is a clean break order?

This is an order that can be made in divorce proceedings after decree nisi which effectively dismisses future financial remedy claims between divorcing spouses. It can be either a clean break on capital only, keeping maintenance claims alive, or it can be a total clean break between spouses 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.

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