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Starting divorce proceedings

To apply for a divorce, you must have been married for at least 12 months.

You will need to prove “irretrievable breakdown of your marriage”, citing one of  the below five grounds as the reason for this as follows.

Think carefully about which grounds for divorce you state in the divorce petition. Your solicitor will advise you on how to choose grounds that your ex-partner will be likely to agree to and that a judge will accept as sufficient to grant you a divorce. 

If your goal is to get divorced as quickly as possible, then using the grounds of adultery or unreasonable behaviour can allow your divorce to proceed faster as you do not need to wait for 2 or 5 years of separation.

  • Adultery

    Adultery: this can be used if your spouse has slept with someone else of the opposite sex. You could not give adultery as a reason if you lived together as a couple for more than six months after you found out about it.  

  • Unreasonable behaviour

    Unreasonable behaviour: this can be used as a reason for divorce if you can no longer be expected to stay married due to your spouse’s behaviour. 

  • Separation for two or more years

    Separation for two or more years– If you and your spouse have not lived as a couple for at least two years. You can only cite two years’ separation if both you and your spouse consent to the divorce.

  • Separation for five or more years

    Separation for five or more years – If you and your spouse have not lived as a couple for at least five years, you can use this as grounds for divorce whether they agree to the divorce or not.

  • Desertion

    Desertion – If your spouse leaves you without good reason or agreement to end your relationship. They will need to have been absent for more than two years out of the past 2.5 years for this to apply.

The divorce process

The divorce process in England is conducted in three stages:

  • Stage 1: The divorce petition

    The first step is to file the divorce petition.

    Once it is determined that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, your family lawyer can prepare the application for divorce (the Divorce Petition). They will advise you on how to fill out the relevant paperwork and ensure there are no errors that could hold up your application. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

    Once the petition is drafted, it is sent to your spouse (the Respondent) for their agreement. This limits the risk of the petition being defended and, ultimately, will reduce the time the petition takes to go through. 

    This can take any time from a few days to 12 weeks, depending on whether the Respondent agrees.

    The petition can then be sent to the family court.

  • Stage 1.1: The acknowledgment of service

    The Respondent is sent the Divorce Petition and the Acknowledgment of Service and is given seven days to return the completed Acknowledgment of Service to the court. 

    Estimated timescale: 7 days to 8 weeks

    If both people complete and submit their divorce papers quickly, then this can speed up the process. It will still depend on how busy the court is, but an uncontested divorce (not disputed) will be considerably quicker to process than a contested divorce.

    This part of the process may take longer if the Respondent has not received a draft copy of the divorce petition, or decides to defend the petition, or indeed does not respond at all.  

    If the Respondent decides to defend the divorce, they will have 28 days to respond with their reasons why. Both spouses will typically need to attend a court hearing for a judge to decide whether to grant the divorce. This will then significantly impact how long the divorce takes, as you will have to wait for an available court date.

    If your divorce petition is rejected, you may need to start the process again using different grounds or wait until you have been separated long enough to use this as grounds for divorce.

  • Stage 2: Decree nisi

    The second stage in the divorce process is the granting of the decree nisi by the court.

    Estimated timescale: 8 weeks

    Once the Acknowledgement of Service has been returned, the decree nisi can be applied for. This is a document saying the court sees no reason why you should not divorce and that all procedural requirements have been met for the marriage to be dissolved. 

    The court will set a date where the decree nisi will be pronounced in court. There is usually no need for either party to attend this hearing. 

    If the divorce is defended, this can take much longer.

    This period is known as the ‘cooling-off period’. Essentially, it is a chance to discuss financial matters and is the time when you can apply for a consent order to divide your assets legally.

  • Stage 3: Decree absolute

    The final stage in the divorce process is obtaining the decree absolute from the court.

    This can be applied for no earlier than six weeks and one day after the decree nisi was pronounced in court. The Decree Absolute usually takes 2-3 weeks to arrive. 

    This is the final order in the divorce process and ends the marriage. 

    It’s important to note that while the Decree Absolute will legally end your marriage, it will not necessarily end your matrimonial financial commitments to your ex-spouse. 

    Your solicitor will be able to help you draw up a financial order to separate your financial commitments.

  • What is a dedicated divorce centre?

    Divorce papers used to have to be filed at local county courts and be checked by district judges. HM Courts and Tribunal Service changed the way we process them, and they are now done at 11 dedicated regional divorce centres.

  • How long does it take to sort out divorce finances?

    A family lawyer can help to draw up the financial order between you and your ex-spouse. This will set out the financial arrangement between you both and end any further financial commitments.  

    Once the divorce financial settlement has been finalised, the agreement should be made legally binding by applying to the court for a financial order. This will mean that you and your spouse’s finances become separate, and neither person can make a claim against the other in the future. This process can take 6-12 months to finalise.

  • What happens if my spouse contests the divorce?

    If your partner disagrees with the divorce (a ‘contested divorce’), or you can’t agree on who should pay the divorce fee or other costs, you might need legal advice or to go to court.

    An important point to remember is that your divorce will take much longer if your spouse contests the divorce. 

    Therefore, it is sensible to consult and agree with your spouse about which grounds you will use for the divorce petition. Your family lawyer will be able to advise on choosing the grounds for divorce.

  • Agreeing on arrangements for children

    We advise clients on the options available to them as parents and help them resolve any contested issues raised concerning childcare arrangements and their children’s living arrangements. 

    In cases involving children, court action should be used as a last resort, and the welfare of the children will remain the paramount consideration.

    Child Arrangement Orders, which have replaced Child Contact, Child Custody Orders and Residence Orders, are legal agreements setting out where a child should live (residence), who they should spend time with (contact) and who the children are allowed to see during the contact.

Mediation and collaborative law

The quickest way to get a divorce is to resolve disagreements without having to go to court. Employing professional mediators or collaborative lawyers can help prevent disputes from escalating and help you find solutions, saving you time and costly court hearings.  

The exception to this is if there has been domestic abuse in a relationship, in which case mediation or collaborative law is not appropriate.

Mediation involves meeting with a mediator whose role will be to help you to identify what the issues are, then help you towards finding solutions through face-to-face discussions. You will meet in a neutral and safe environment, and your discussions will progress at a pace that you are comfortable with.

Collaborative law differs from mediation in that each party has a legal advisor present at all meetings.

Both parties benefit from legal advice throughout the process as they have their own collaboratively trained lawyer. 

All four of you work together in a series of face-to-face meetings and commit to reaching solutions by agreement rather than through court.

Pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements

If you have already drawn up a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement, this can also help speed up divorce as all financial and other matters have been decided and agreed on beforehand should the marriage end. 

Useful tips to speed up your divorce:

Agree with your partner beforehand about the grounds for your divorce in the divorce petition. 

Provide your solicitor with your marriage certificate, information about your wedding and evidence of the facts proving the marriage’s breakdown at the earliest opportunity. 

Complete all paperwork as promptly as possible and return it to your solicitor.

Lodging your divorce petition online has proved so far to be more efficient than a paper-based application. We have experienced divorce petitions being issued by the court in 24 hours when using the online portal. 

Check all paperwork carefully for mistakes. Mistakes can add to the timescale if papers have to be resubmitted to court due to errors, as your application will go to the back of the queue when you re-submit it, causing unnecessary delays.

Agree on financial and child arrangements before the divorce is finalised. Disagreements about these matters can complicate matters and delay the divorce. 

There are two main methods used for non-confrontational divorce – mediation and collaborative law. 

Both are usually much faster than taking your divorce through the courts, with each having different advantages depending on your circumstances. 

The majority of our lawyers are Resolution members, a group of family lawyers, and other professionals, which promote a non-confrontational approach to resolving family disputes. 

Members encourage solutions that consider the needs of the whole family – particularly the best interests of children.

The majority of our lawyers are Resolution members, a group of family lawyers, and other professionals, which promote a non-confrontational approach to resolving family disputes. 

Members encourage solutions that consider the needs of the whole family – particularly the best interests of children.

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