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Getting a divorce – A jargon-free step-by-step guide

The mere thought of divorce can be enough for many of us to bury our heads in the sand. Legal jargon, advice from well-meaning friends and sometimes not-so-well-meaning feedback from an ex-spouse can all add to the confusion and stress that leads to expensive mistakes. 

But thankfully, it doesn’t have to be like that. 

In a few short minutes, you will learn the steps you need to take to get a divorce in the UK so that you can make better-informed decisions to divorce on your terms.  

The no-fault divorce system replaced the old blame and separation system on the 6th of April, 2022. There are some significant differences in the new law that you need to be aware of, and the steps are different. What follows is a step-by-step guide to the stages an individual (sole applicant) goes through when filing for divorce. 

Individual or joint divorce application?

Under the old blame or separation law, the petitioner (the person applying for divorce) filed for divorce against their spouse (known as the respondent).

Under the no-fault divorce law, you can apply for a divorce as an individual (like the old law) or jointly as a couple. A divorce application made by one applicant is known as a sole application. The person applying is the ‘applicant’ or ‘sole applicant’, and their spouse/civil partner is the ‘respondent’. 

Sole applicants cannot change their application to a joint one, so you must decide whether to apply solely or jointly with the other party at the start.

About 20% of divorces are filed jointly, and we have a useful article here that looks at the pros and cons of individual and joint divorces.

If you want to file as a couple, read our no-fault divorce couples guide here.

Can I get a no-fault divorce in the UK?

You can get divorced in England or Wales if all the following statements are true:

  • you’ve been married for over 12 months
  • your relationship has permanently broken down
  • your marriage (including same-sex marriage) is legal in the UK
  • the UK is your or your spouse’s permanent home

What are the grounds for a no-fault divorce? 

To get a divorce under the old divorce law, you must give one of five reasons – adulteryunreasonable behaviour, desertion, two years separation, or five years separation. The new no-fault divorce removes the need for any of this, and all you do have to do now is tick a box and sign a statement that your marriage has irretrievably broken down (the problems in your marriage or civil partnership cannot be fixed). 

Can I get a divorce under the old law?

Quite often, we have people who want to divorce under the old law; they want to blame their partner and have the opportunity to make a statement about their behaviour. I suppose in difficult relationships, it can feel quite cathartic to get it off your chest and onto paper. But you can’t do that any more. The only law is the no-fault system, and you cannot write about your ex’s behaviour.  

Can my ex stop my divorce?

One of the biggest changes to the no-fault divorce law is removing the ability of your ex (the respondent) to stop (known as contest or defend) your decision to divorce or end your civil partnership.

Your ex cannot dispute that your marriage has broken down. The court’s view is that if one party believes the marriage has broken down and cannot be fixed, then the marriage has broken down for both parties. You can’t have a relationship where only one person thinks it’s working – you both must agree. 

The only way your ex could try and stop your divorce is in the following very limited circumstances:

  • If your marriage or civil partnership isn’t legally recognised in the UK. For example, a polygamous marriage (where someone is married to more than one person) is illegal and is not legally recognised in the UK.
  • Where the court doesn’t have jurisdiction (the power to make legal decisions) to divorce you. For example, if neither of you have a permanent home in England and Wales.
  • If your marriage or civil partnership has already been legally ended in proceedings outside of England and Wales.

How long does a divorce take?

While the no-fault divorce system has many benefits, a downside for many going through a divorce is that it takes longer than the old system. The quickest you can now get a divorce in the UK is just over seven months. Seven months is how long it takes for most of our clients, but be aware – the latest data from the justice department shows divorces take 15 months on average. There are many reasons for this, and there is a lot you can do to avoid a long-drawn-out divorce.

Read here for more information on the steps to take for a fast divorce.

Why does a divorce take so long under the no-fault divorce law?

A no-fault divorce takes at least seven months compared to the old blame law, which could be completed within three months. The reason for the longer time frame is that a mandatory 20-week reflection period has been added to the start of the process to give you time to consider if divorce is really what you want. 

There is then a six-week cooling off period between the court giving you permission to divorce (known as a conditional order) and you applying to complete your divorce (known as the final order). The complete step-by-step process and timescales are shown below. 

Can I still get help with court fees with a no-fault divorce?

Yes, it’s the same as with the old law. As a sole applicant, you can apply for help with court fees if you have little or no savings and are on a low income or receive certain benefits. 

You can find more information on Help with Fees in this article

No-fault divorce – A step-by-step guide

No Fault Divorce Process Individual Application

Step 1. Start your application for divorce

One person begins the process. You can either handle the process yourself and do it through the government website or use an online divorce service or solicitor.

Deciding how or who will handle your divorce is the biggest deciding factor on how long your divorce will take and how much it will cost you. Read this article for more help in deciding the right option for you.

Step 2. Your ex responds to your divorce application

Once your application for divorce has been submitted, it takes the court about two weeks to officially start your divorce and begin the 20-week reflection period. The court sends your ex the divorce petition, and your ex has 14 days to respond by completing and sending a document known as the Acknowledgement of Service (AOS) to the court.

Step 3. Apply for your conditional order

After the 20-week cool-off period has passed, and as long as your ex has returned the AOS, you can apply for your conditional order (previously known as the decree nisi under the old blame law).

Step 4. The court reviews your application for a conditional order

When the court receives your application for a conditional order, a legal advisor reviews your application, which takes one or two weeks. If approved, you will receive a certificate of entitlement that confirms the date the court will officially permit you to apply to finalise your divorce. 

Step 5. The court grants your conditional order

The date of the conditional order is 4 to 5 weeks from the date of your certificate of entitlement. A second mandatory waiting period of six weeks begins as soon as it is granted. During this time, you are now able to submit a consent order to the court to make your financial agreements or clean break legally binding. 

A consent order is a separate process that deals with your finances and ends legal ties between you and your ex. It is extremely important to understand how this works, so if you read nothing else, spend 5 minutes finding out what a consent order is and how it protects your financial future.

Step 6. Apply for your final order

After six weeks, you can apply to the court for your final order (previously known as the decree absolute) to finalise your divorce.

Step 7. The court grants your final order

It only takes 24-48 hours after applying for the final order for the court to issue it. Once you have it, you are officially divorced (but not financially separate unless you have a court-approved consent order in place.) Keep your final order document safe, as it is your proof of divorce.

I hope you have found this guide helpful and that you are now much clearer about the steps you need to take to get a divorce. Although the process is the same for everyone, everyone’s situation is different, so if you have any questions about the divorce steps (or divorce in general), you can email, call 0204 530 8101 or book a free consultation with one of our friendly experts who will be happy to help.

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