Easy to understand guide to the UK Divorce Process

1st November 2018

Welcome to our complete guide to the UK divorce process. Here we will take you through the various steps of a typical divorce in the UK, what is expected of each spouse, how much it may cost and, most importantly, how you can get help in any areas you need it.

What is divorce?

Divorce is the legal termination of marriage or marital union. It can also be referred to as the dissolution of marriage and, in simple terms, it is the formal ending of a marriage.

The divorce process in the UK can be incredibly complicated, emotionally difficult and stressful for each person involved, particularly if there are a number of disputed areas like custody of children, existing financial commitments, and the distribution of shared property and assets.

Due to the complexity of the divorce process and settling these issues, getting divorce advice from people you trust can make the procedures much easier to manage, both emotionally and practically.

How many marriages end in divorce?

In 2016, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recognised around 106,000 divorces of opposite-sex couples. There were also 112 divorces of same-sex couples.

What is the divorce rate in the UK?

For opposite-sex couples, the UK divorce rate is 8.9 per every 1,000 men and women. The highest divorce rates in the UK were those of men aged between 45-49, and women aged between 30-39.

What are the most common reasons for divorce?

There are a multitude of reasons why couples feel their marriage has run its course. The most common of these are financial difficulties and infidelity.

‘Unreasonable behaviour’ was cited by the ONS as the most common grounds for divorce in 2016, and this has consistently been the case since the 1970s. Last year 36% of all husbands and 51% of wives seeking divorce stated unreasonable behaviour as their primary reason for petitioning.

What are the alternatives to divorce?

If you have begun the process of divorce, then it may be that your differences with your spouse cannot be resolved or reversed, however there are alternatives that you may wish to consider before commencing what may be a long and difficult procedure.

These alternatives include a trial separation, where the spouse wishing to end the marriage is able to experience life outside of the marital set up, without terminating it legally; this makes it much easier to reverse. Another alternative is to seek relationship counselling and see if a professional can help you resolve your differences harmoniously.

How long do I have to be legally separated before I can divorce?

In the UK, you must have been married for at least a year before filing for divorce under any grounds.

The sufficient lengths of time to be legally separated as grounds for divorce are as follows: 

  • You have been legally separated for 2 years and both of you consent to divorce
  • You have been legally separated for 5 years, regardless of consent

How to get a divorce

According to the UK government, you can get a divorce in England or Wales by applying either online or by post. To apply, you will need to fill in a divorce application form D8 – also known as a ‘divorce petition’. The application will cost £550, which is payable at the point of application.

How long does a divorce take?

How long a divorce takes depends entirely on how simple or complicated the case is. If there are a number of issues to resolve, the length of a divorce process can be extended quite considerably.

Generally, a divorce can be expected to take anywhere between six weeks and a year. For a more accurate estimate based on your personal circumstances, we recommend a consultation with a solicitor.

Can you get a ‘quickie divorce’?

It is impossible to say whether a divorce will be 'quick', as this is both relative, and heavily dependent upon the couple, their circumstances, and how heavily the procedure is contested.

The average time for an uncontested divorce is around 3 months, whereas the average duration of a contested divorce is 12 months. Without understanding your circumstances, it is very difficult to predict the length of a divorce, so be wary of any ‘quick divorce’ procedures you may encounter.

How much does divorce cost in the UK?

How much a divorce costs in the UK is highly dependent upon each individual case. Different solicitors will also charge different amounts for their services.

At Acclaimed Family Law, our fixed fee divorce package costs £1,090, which is inclusive of the £550 court fee, and our legal costs of £450 plus VAT. 

It should be noted that a fixed fee does not include additional work that is required to resolve any financial disputes, correspondence. For more information on fixed fee divorce and associated costs, please see our Fixed Fee Divorce page.

What are the divorce papers?

Divorce papers are known legally as the ‘petition’, and these are the papers which start the divorce process. The petition is written by one spouse and issued to the other spouse. It includes important information such as the names of both parties, and if the involvement is to involve any property, custody or financial support.

This petition must be acknowledged and sent to the court before a specified deadline; this acknowledgement can be both an agreement and disagreement with the petition.

For more information, please see ‘Divorce Procedure Steps’ below.

What am I entitled to in a divorce settlement?

Like many issues relating to divorce, what you are entitled to in a divorce settlement depends on the circumstances of your specific marriage.

There are three general areas in which a former spouse is entitled to money or marital assets:

  • Child support
  • Spousal support or maintenance (also known as Alimony)
  • The Division of Marital Assets and Liabilities (distribution of marital property and assets)

The starting point is generally considered to be a 50/50 split; however, a qualified divorce solicitor will be able to give you a more accurate idea of what you may be entitled to.

How is a house divided in a divorce?

The family home and any other property you own will be included in the Division of Marital Assets and Liabilities. There is no standard formula for this and the division of your house and mortgage repayments will be subject to a number of factors. Once again, we recommend speaking to a solicitor for more information relating to your own property in divorce.

Divorce procedure steps

This article is designed to give you as clear as possible a view of the general steps you can expect to be making throughout the divorce process. The finer details will almost always vary from case to case, so it’s recommended you always seek guidance or advice from a divorce expert if there are any steps you are unsure of.

Step 1. The divorce petition

Issuing a divorce petition (filing for divorce)

This section only applies if you are the petitioner, that is, the spouse who is seeking a divorce.

Filing for divorce starts with the divorce petition form, which can be found on the UK government website. This form requires the following information:

  • Your full name and address
  • Your spouse’s full name and address
  • Your marriage certificate – this can be the original certificate or a copy obtained from your register office.
  • The names and dates of birth of any children (optional)

To file for divorce and issue your divorce petition, there is a £550 fee payable. 

You can then send three copies of the completed divorce petition to your local divorce centre. If you are filing for divorce because of adultery, you need to send four copies, as one of these will be sent to the person your spouse committed adultery with.

Being issued a divorce petition

This section only applies if you have received a divorce petition and are not the spouse filing for divorce.

You should receive a draft petition for consideration if your spouse has a solicitor. You have the right to suggest any alterations in order to insure both parties agree on its content. This content may include particular allegations from your spouse, as well as financial proposals or demands.

You can read more about the different elements of this below. 

If you or your spouse agrees to the divorce

If you or your spouse agrees to the terms of divorce, they must fill in and return the acknowledgement of service form. This must be issued to the divorce centre within eight days of the issuing. If this is done correctly, the divorce can proceed.

If you or your spouse does not agree to the divorce

The spouse contesting the petition can write to the petitioner or their solicitor and request amends to the petition, specifying which areas are inappropriate. There may be allegations that your or they believe to be false.

If the petition has already been issued by the courts, there could be additional costs for the petitioner. 

If your or your spouse are issued a divorce petition containing allegations or terms believed to be false or inappropriate, there is also the option of defending the petition by filing an ‘Answer’ and ‘Cross Petition’. This is a request for the petition to be stuck out. This route requires a £245 fee, and there can be additional costs involved.

A court hearing will usually be required if you and your spouse are unable to come to an agreement over the divorce terms.

Step 2. District court judge considers petition

During this step, a district court judge will receive and consider the petition that has been issued. The judge will evaluate the grounds for divorce stated and, if accepted, the judge will see your petition listed for pronouncement of decree nisi.

What is decree nisi?

Decree nisi is a court order that requires particular conditions to be met in order to be valid. This court order confirms that the grounds for divorce have been accepted and that they believe the marriage has irretrievably broken down. It does not mean the divorce has been finalised, this comes only with decree absolute (see below). 

The decree nisi is read out by the judge in court as part of the process; if there are any further objections to the decree nisi, applications can be made to contest it. For example, it may be the case that there are facts or issues that have not been included or considered.

Following decree nisi, there is a six-week waiting period before the petitioner can apply for decree absolute.

Step 3. Decree Absolute

What is decree absolute?

The decree absolute is the final part of the divorce process, thereby ending the marriage and allowing both parties to remarry. The decree absolute can be applied for six weeks and one day after the date of decree nisi.

A decree absolute ends the marriage, however it does not necessarily end financial commitments to your former spouse. If there are financial or property disputes, these may be claimed for at any time after the termination of marriage, unless there is a Clean Break Order or Consent Order in place.

What if the decree absolute is lost?

In the event that you require another copy of the decree absolute, you can contact the court where the divorce took place and request one. If you know the case number this costs £10. 

If you do not know the case number, the court will search records based on dates provided. If you are unable to provide a date, it will cost £45 for every ten years of records searched.

Mediation procedure for divorce

Mediation is a flexible process that is used to resolve issues that arise during the separation process before divorce. This process is carried out by a mediator, who aims to facilitate constructive discussion and resolve concerns and issues without the need for a court financial settlement process, which can be distressing and expensive.

This process is not designed to resolve relationship issues; for that a relationship counsellor is recommended. Instead, the mediator will aid in discussion regarding, but not limited to:

  • Custody of children or pets
  • Financial issues such as property, savings, pensions or investments

This section will take you through a typical mediation process for divorce.

What are the benefits of mediation?

Mediation gives divorcing couples the opportunity to agree terms and resolve issues by themselves, without the need for legal representation or court hearings. This has obvious financial and emotional benefits, as court cases can be very stressful.

This process also sees you, the couple, in control of proceedings. The mediator facilitates discussion, but does not act like a judge and dictate the direction of the talks. You will ultimately be empowered to make decisions yourselves.

Step 1. Finding a mediator

The first step to this process is to find a qualified professional mediator who specialises in divorce, conflict management and family issues. Your mediator will be neutral and completely impartial; they will not take sides in any issue. What they will do is ensure that both sides are given the chance to express their concerns.

It is highly recommended that you research the mediation process before beginning; it is also recommended that you speak to a mediator about how the process worked beforehand to manage your expectations and understand the costs involved.

What if you or your spouse refuses to attend mediation?

If either party is unwilling to attend a mediation session, most mediators will try to contact them directly to explain the benefits of the process, and generally try to talk them round to the idea.

If this is unsuccessful, the mediator will sign a form declaring this party was unwilling to attend mediation, which will be passed on to the court for use in any upcoming procedures there.

Step 2. Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM)

This is the initial appointment with your mediator. In this appointment, you can ask any questions about how the process works, how long it will take, how much the full process is expected to cost.

The mediator will use this meeting to gather as much information as possible to assist your case, and will assess whether your circumstances are suitable for mediation, or if a financial settlement court procedure is required.

In this stage, you will also find out if either party is eligible for public funding to cover the mediation costs. If the mediator decides your divorce is unsuitable for mediation, they will sign a form confirming this, which will be passed on to the courts for use in any upcoming procedures.

Step 3. Undertaking mediation

At this stage, you and your spouse will commence mediation, where the mediator will aim to resolve the issues through constructive discussion.

The number of meetings required will vary on a case by case basis, however this process will usually require between 4-6 sessions for an outcome to be achieved. 

Step 4. Finding and confirming resolutions

When sufficient sessions have been attended and general agreements have been met on the issues pertaining to your divorce, the mediator will issue you with the following documents, which must be issued to the court to be made into a binding order.

Memorandum of Understanding

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is a document which indicates that an agreement has been reached between the appropriate parties on a particular issue. This will be used by your legal representatives to compile your final legal commitments as agreed.

It is a good idea to take your memorandum of understanding to your solicitor, who can turn it into a consent order, which means you can take your spouse to court if they do not honour its content – this costs £50.

Outcome of Mediation document

This is often called the Open Summary of Information, as well as the Open Financial Summary, and is a document that discloses all information regarding the financial situations of both parties. This can then be used by a solicitor as part of the Statement of Financial Information Form, which is required by the court as part of the consent order.

Statement of Financial Information

This is a legal document which fully discloses the financial positions and interests of each spouse in a divorce case.

Arbitration procedure

Like Mediation, Arbitration is a type of dispute resolution process designed to help couples or families settle disputes and agree outcomes without the need for a court trial. Arbitration is a private judicial ruling by an independent third party.

How does arbitration work?

Arbitration is a process in which you and your spouse allow a third-party family arbitrator to make a final decision about a disputed issue. Generally, arbitration follows these principles: 

  • The aim of arbitration is to gain a fair resolution for a dispute whilst minimizing costs and time delays.
  • Courts should not get involved in the arbitration process
  • You and your spouse will hand over responsibility of the final decision to the arbitrators. The arbitrator will consider the views of both you and your spouse when making this decision.

The arbitration process can involve either an individual arbitrator or a tribunal. The standard number of arbitrators is between one and three in order to ensure decisions cannot be tied; however, the required number of arbitrators can vary.

When to choose arbitration

Arbitration is an alternative to a court trial, and may be considered when private negotiations or mediation have failed to resolve an issue. Both parties must agree to undertake arbitration. 

Step 1. Finding an arbitrator

You can find a list of qualified arbitrators in the Institute of Family Law Arbitrators website, which will link you to the individual arbitrators’ websites. From there you must choose which you would like to work with based on your requirements, budget, location and other circumstances.

Step 2. Introductory meeting with arbitrator

Unlike other processes involved in divorce, the arbitration process is typically a lot more flexible than a court procedure. You and your spouse are ultimately in control of proceedings, and the arbitrator is tasked with resolving the dispute on your terms.

The Introductory meeting may take place in person or on the phone. This meeting is simply to ensure each party understands how the arbitration will work, what the outcome will entail, and which issues are to be discussed and hopefully resolved. 

Step 3. Preliminary hearings

Once things are under way, there will be a preliminary hearing, which will look at establishing the facts pertaining to the issue. It will also involve valuations of any property or assets that are being disputed.

Step 4. Final hearing

Once the arbitrator has sufficient evidence and the necessary discussions have taken place, they will be able to make a final decision, also known as an award. You can then request that the court confirms this in a legally binding court order. This means the outcome of your arbitration can be enforced and not disregarded by either party. 

The final arbitration decision (award) is legally binding. As part of the arbitration process, you and your spouse will agree to honour the decision that is ultimately made, even if it is not the desired outcome of either party.

In very rare cases, these decisions can be overridden in court if issues are found with the award, or information provided in the arbitration hearings are found to be invalid.

How much does arbitration cost?

In short, it is impossible to say exactly what arbitration will cost for a particular case, as cost is affected by a number of factors. These include, but are not limited to, arbitration fees set by the arbitrator, as well as venue costs and the cost of any extra facilities required during the process.

Should you try mediation first?

It is recommended that you consider mediation or private negotiations and discussions between you and your spouse before hiring an arbitrator.

Financial settlement procedure

Often, the most difficult aspect of divorce negotiations is for both parties to agree a financial settlement.

Before proceeding to court, you are required to try and resolve disagreements about money, children or property through a mediator.

What comes first: divorce or settlement?

Settlement proceedings should be going on at the same time as your divorce proceedings; however, finalisation of your divorce will usually be delayed until any financial disputes have been resolved.

In the event that negotiations have been unsuccessful and a mediator has been unable to resolve the issues, the following steps can be expected in the divorce financial settlement procedure:

Step 1. Notice of application (Form A)

This step begins the financial settlement process and requires Form A, that is, a ‘Notice of an application for a financial order’ to be completed. The completed Form A can be sent to court any time after the divorce petition has been filed. The court will then issue instructions to both parties and attempt to resolve the issue.

The cost for requesting a financial order is £255.

Step 2. Financial settlement document (Form E)

Before you go to court, you and your spouse must complete a financial settlement document known as Form E. This is an in-depth document which lists information about the financial positions of both parties. Providing this information is known as ‘disclosure’. The areas covered by Form E will include, but will not be limited to, the following:

  • Salary and earnings
  • Property
  • Savings
  • Investments
  • Any other income
  • Estimate of future outgoings

Evidence will be required, including 12 month of bank statements and proof of property, insurance, pensions and any other income.

If you or your spouse has a new partner since separation, you will be required to disclose some information about their financial position if you are aware of it.

Step 3. First Directions Appointment (FDA)

The court will set a date for the First Directions Appointment. In this meeting, a judge will evaluate the information which will be required from each side in order to settle the financial dispute. This will usually take place between 12 and 16 weeks after the issuing of Form A.

What is the FDA?

This appointment is intended to plan out the best ways to resolve the disagreements put forward, and to ensure the courts have all the information they require to decide the case as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

What documents do you need file for the FDA?

The following documents are required to be filed two weeks before the FDA takes place:

  • A questionnaire to address any issues that have been taken with the terms of Form E
  • A clear statement of all issues to be resolved
  • A chronology of events
  • Form G, that is, a ‘Notice of Response to First Appointment’. This form is issued by the court and seeks to ascertain whether or not you are willing to use the first court appointment (FDA) as the second (FDR - Financial Dispute Resolution, see below). This is generally done to save time and costs.

Step 4. Financial Dispute Resolution appointment (FDR) 

What is the FDR?

The Financial Dispute Resolution appointment, or FDR, is a meeting held at court in the presence of a judge. In this meeting, a judge will aid in the discussion and resolution any ongoing disputes with the intention of avoiding a lengthy court trial, which can be distressing and very expensive for both parties involved. 

This meeting is ‘without prejudice’, which means none of the statements made can be referred to if a subsequent trial is required. This meeting is intended to be open, allowing both parties to discuss and negotiate freely with judicial assistance. The judge present in the FDR will not be involved in a subsequent trial.

Do you need to have an FDR?

It is possible to use your First Directions Appointment (FDA) as an FDR, but only of both parties agree and there are no ongoing disputes to be resolved. 

Step 5. Final hearing

This stage is only required if you and your spouse have been unable to resolve disputes during the first two hearings.

In this final stage, the judge will seek to issue an order which will be legally binding for both parties. This hearing may require the attendance and evidence of financial experts, accountants or surveyors.

The final hearing will often take place many months after the start of the divorce process, and many couples are able to resolve their issues prior to this. If a final hearing is to be needed, it is advised that you consult a solicitor to help you formulate an offer based on the needs of yourself and your spouse.

Who gets custody of the children?

One of the most difficult and emotionally stressful parts of a divorce process can be deciding on custody of children, especially if you and your partner disagree strongly on an outcome.

Children should always come first

Divorce can have a tremendous emotional impact on children who are involved. Throughout the whole process, it is vital that you pay attention to the behaviour shown by your children; they may show signs of anxiety, sadness and general confusion. Many parents underestimate the emotional toll of their divorce on the children.

If you are concerned that your divorce is having a serious negative impact on your child’s wellbeing, you and your spouse should discuss a parenting plan, and consider seeking support and advice from a child welfare specialist.

If you cannot agree on custody

Under the circumstances of divorce, agreeing on a child custody plan can be incredibly difficult. If, after private discussions, you and your spouse are unable to agree on a plan, there are options available, including:

  • Mediation
  • Counselling
  • Collaborative divorce procedure

Seeking emotional support during divorce

It’s no secret that divorce can have a negative impact on your emotional well-being and mental health. It can be particularly difficult to cope with complicated or bitter divorce process where you may feel angered, saddened or betrayed by your spouse’s behaviour. 

Pairing this with the financial and legal challenges involved, the result is an incredible difficult time.

There are hundreds of self-help guides online by mental health experts and other divorcees share their experiences coping with divorce. Should this approach fail, however, Divorce counselling may be an option.

What is divorce counselling?

Divorce counselling is a kind of relationship counselling designed to help you, your partner, or both, to during a divorce or separation. A divorce counsellor will help you work through your feelings, issues and anxieties, without judgment, and hopefully offer encouragement and positive next steps.

What is no-fault divorce?

No-fault divorce is a divorce when neither party is required to demonstrate a fault or wrongdoing. Currently, in the UK, people wishing to divorce must prove that their marriage has irrevocably broken down; this is known as having “grounds for divorce”. For a divorce to go ahead, couples need to assign some kind of blame for the breakdown of the marriage, unless they are happy to wait between 2-5 years for a no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce is not currently part of UK family law; however, this is set to change.

Can we assist you with your divorce?

All of our solicitors are highly regarded experts in their respective fields. We specialise exclusively in family law and offer a premium service, focused and tailored to each individual person’s needs in a comfortable and cost effective way. We also provide a range of flexible payment options including fixed fees and pay as you go.

We believe in supporting our clients from beginning to end.

Book your FREE consultation today.

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Last updated February 12th 2020

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