Grounds for divorce?

Divorce|Family|August 1st 2013

Earlier today I appeared on BBC Radio Tees to discuss the pros and cons of mediation in divorce. It was a lively debate in which I stressed the importance of full legal training for anyone offering mediation family situations. The truth is that mediation is an extension of the conventional legal process and not a cut-price alternative, whatever the government might claim. It is vital that mediators have a thorough understanding of the law or their clients could end up making some very expensive mistakes.

During the conversation, with presenter Mike Parr, I took the opportunity to set out the legal grounds for divorce in the UK. There is a lot of misinformation floating around on this topic – there are, for example, no such thing in UK law as ‘irreconcilable differences’, however frequently we may read about Hollywood celebrities citing these in divorce papers. ‘Irreconcilable differences’ are actually one of only two possible grounds for divorce in California, which, unlike England and Wales, is a ‘no fault divorce’ jurisdiction. The other possible ground? Incurable insanity!

It is also widely assumed that the final decree absolute stage in a divorce cannot happen without the couple reaching a financial settlement first. This is, in fact, not the case.

Here in England, there is only one possible ground for divorce: the ‘irretrievable breakdown’ of your marriage’. This can be demonstrated by one of five facts:

*Adultery – pretty self explanatory, although it is worth noting that, even in our brave new world of gay marriage, adultery can only take place with members of the opposite sex.

In order to cite adultery, you must act within six months of discovering the deed and you don’t need to name a third party. This is difficult to prove, though, if is not admitted and that’s why the next “fact” is more likely to crop up on a divorce petition.

*Unreasonable behaviour – this essentially means your partner has behaved so badly you can no longer reasonably be expected to live with them. Possible examples include  verbal abuse, domestic violence or taking illegal drugs.

*Desertion – again, this is largely self-explanatory. A partner who has left you isn’t much of a partner. To cite desertion, your spouse’s departure must meet one of the following conditions:

>They left without good reason.

>They left without your agreement.

>They left to end your relationship.

> They have left your for more than two years in the past two and a half years.

*You have lived apart for more than two years. However, your partner must still agree to the divorce.

*You have lived apart for more than five years. In such cases, your partner usually need not agree to the divorce – but surely, any couple who have lived apart for more than five years are already divorced in all but name?

Of all the reasons for divorce, adultery is perhaps the most black and white, and the one most likely to generate headlines in the media. But it is actually no longer the most commonly cited reason for breaking up –  according to a 2011 survey of divorce lawyers, UK couples are now most likely to divorce because they have simply grown apart. Vague, amorphous…and human nature.

Lawyers are used to seeing all sorts of reasons for the end of a marriage. Things that were fine to start with often become “unreasonable” over time.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Luke says:

    In practice we do have no-fault divorce – “Unreasonable Behaviour” is a catch-all and the lawyer one has hired will help frame it in such a way that it is accepted by the courts.

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