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A step by step guide to getting a divorce

Whilst we always highly recommend that you seek legal advice to protect yourself and your family, here’s a step by step guide about how to get divorced.

This step by step guide shows you the process of divorce in England and Wales (there are different divorce laws in Scotland and Northern Ireland).

  • Decide the grounds for divorce

    In English law, you must cite one of five reasons for divorce in support of your claim in your divorce petition that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. You also must have been married for more than one year.

    Adultery – for this one it is worth noting that your ex-partner will have to formally admit to an affair otherwise you will need to have to prove it.

    Unreasonable Behaviour – The most commonly used reason as it can cover multiple behaviours and issues.   You will have to put some details on the petition, but the other party does not have to formally admit it. The relevant type of behaviour by your spouse is something which you should not be reasonably expected to live with.

    Separation, two years – You have lived apart for two years and the other party agrees to the divorce.

    Separation, five years – If the other party will not agree to a divorce, you must have lived separately for five years.

    Desertion – this is something more than just separation, it is the abandonment of one party to the marriage by their spouse. It is a ground which is rarely used.

    The new no-fault divorce law is due to be implemented in April 2022 which will remove the need to blame one of the parties when seeking a divorce.

  • Complete a divorce petition

    If it’s you who is starting divorce proceedings, you are known as the ‘Petitioner.’ Your spouse is the ‘Respondent’. If there is a third party, they are referred to as the Co-respondent.

    You need to download and fill in a divorce petition (a Form D8) which is basically an application for divorce.  You can download this here.

    It is here that you will state your reason for divorce using one of the 5 reasons set out above.

    You will need to gather together details about you and your ex-partner. Please do refer to the guidance notes as they explain what each section means.

  • Submit the petition

    Once the form is completed you need to supply your original marriage certificate or get an official copy – you can order one here – your own copies will not be accepted.

    It is at this stage payment of the court fee is required (currently £593).

    You can submit your petition in two ways: (England and Wales only)


    You can download a divorce application form (Form D8)  here

    Advice and guidelines on how to apply for a divorce

    Apply by post

    Send 3 copies of the form to your nearest divorce centre. Find yours here

    The Court will send you a copy back, one to your spouse and keep a copy on file.  You will need to send 4 copies if you have named someone who has committed adultery with your spouse.

    You can pay by debit or credit card (the divorce centre will call you to take payment) or by cheque – made payable to ‘HM Courts and Tribunals Service.’

  • But what if there’s money to be sorted out?

    There is a question about making a financial claim on the petition and you just tick a box. However, it is rarely that simple. Very few people know exactly what assets there are. Whilst you can find out what property, assets and income there is by yourself (a process called financial disclosure) we would strongly recommend getting legal advice, so you are protected financially. It’s one thing to know what there is, however that doesn’t mean that you will know how those assets and financial resources including income should be distributed.

    If you don’t get a financial settlement, you are leaving yourself open to any financial claims that can potentially be made in the future.

    You can find out more about reaching a financial settlement here

    You can download the Form E and submission details here.

  • What happens next

    Your application will be checked by the court and if it’s completed correctly you will be sent a notice that your application has been issued, a copy of your application and a case number.

    A copy of the application will be sent to your spouse along with a form for them to complete called an Acknowledgement of Service form. They will have 7 days to respond to the court to say if they intend to defend the divorce.

    If your spouse returns the Acknowledgement of Service form agreeing to the divorce petition, then you can apply for a decree nisi which is the interim decree of divorce and basically means the court sees no reason why you cannot divorce.

  • What happens if my spouse refuses to return the Acknowledgement of Service?

    You will have to supply your spouse’s name and address on the divorce petition. If you don’t have your spouse’s current address, this could cause difficulties since they must be served with the divorce petition.

    For certain grounds your solicitor or the court can instruct a process server to personally serve the petition to your spouse. A process server is a person who will physically deliver the divorce papers to your spouse at their home, other known address or their place of work. They will charge a fee for this and will provide a statement of service which can be used in lieu of the signed Acknowledgement of Service in order to progress the divorce. (This would not work for 2 years separation as consent still required, or if using adultery as a ground as the Respondent still needs to admit the adultery).

    If your spouse wants to dispute the divorce petition, they have to fill out an “Answer” and return it to court within 28 days of receiving the application. A defended divorce will involve a court hearing where the judge will ask for further details and evidence go be considered at a contested hearing. The judge will then make a decision at this contested hearing as to whether the marriage should be dissolved. You can read more about contested divorces here.

  • Apply for a decree nisi

    The decree nisi is often referred to as the “first stage”. It is the first decree of a divorce. The decree nisi does not bring the marriage to an end. At this stage, the couple remains married in the eyes of the law and can still move back from finalising the divorce at this stage.

    To get a decree nisi, read the guidance and then fill in the application form. You can download the application for a decree nisi (Form D84) here.

    An application is submitted to court alongside a statement of support which confirms that the contents of the application are true. The court will then consider the documentation and, if it is satisfied that the petitioner is entitled to a divorce, it will use a Certificate of Entitlement to a Decree Nisi which will list the date for the pronouncement of the decree nisi. Usually, you do not have to attend court to hear the decree nisi being pronounced, unless there is a dispute over a cost order.

  • Apply for a decree absolute

    Once the decree nisi has been pronounced you can apply after six weeks and one day to have the decree absolute granted. This is the formal court document that legally dissolves your marriage.

    You must complete a notice of application to the court who will check the time limits and there are no other reasons not to grant the divorce. If more than 12 months have passed since the decree nisi was pronounced, then you will need to file a short statement confirming that you have not reconciled since the date of the nisi and that you have not had any further children together.

    You can download the application for decree absolute (Form D36) here

    The court will send the decree absolute to both parties and you are now officially divorced. Keep this document safe, as you will need to show if you wish to remarry.

    You can find further forms and guidance on divorce, both marriage and civil partnerships here.

How long will a divorce take?

All in all, the process could take around five months to complete – provided both parties do everything required at the earliest opportunity. Delays by either side and disagreements over the financial issues are common factors that slow progress, making the process take longer. If both parties cannot agree, or there are delays returning paperwork, then this can extend the time and increase costs.

One thing to be aware of when applying for decree absolute is that, once it is pronounced, you are no longer husband or wife. Should one of you die and the financial issues have not been resolved, then you may not be entitled to any widow’s benefits from pensions or life policies. It is always prudent therefore to have considered the financial issues before you decide to apply for a decree absolute.

How long do you have to be separated before you can get divorced?

If you are divorcing on the grounds of separation you will need to have been separated for two years (if you both agree) or five years (if you don’t agree) before you can start the process.

If you are looking to issue a divorce petition immediately, it has to be based on complaints of behaviour or adultery. However, the new no-fault divorce law is due to be implemented in the autumn of 2021 which will remove the need to blame one of the parties when seeking a divorce.

You can read more about how long you have to be separated before divorce here

How can I get more information about getting a divorce in the UK?

If you would like to speak to someone about how to get a divorce, call our Client Care Team to speak with one of our specialist family lawyers. You will be offered a tailored approach from the UK’s largest team of divorce lawyers that really understand family law.

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