The divorce process

If you have been married for at least one year but things haven't worked out, you can file for divorce. The divorce process essentially consists of three stages: (1) filing a divorce petition form; (2) applying for the decree nisi; and (3) applying for the decree nisi. If you are dissolving a civil partnership the steps detailed below are largely the same, but some of the terminology is different.

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1. Filing for divorce, responding to divorce petition and court hearing

Filing for divorce

The first step of the divorce process is to complete a divorce petition form. The full names and addresses of both spouses must be stated in the form, along with the names and dates of birth of any children from the marriage (even if they are over 18). The grounds for divorce must also be given, as well as various other details. Two copies of the divorce petition form (three copies if you have named someone with whom your spouse had an affair) should be sent to your nearest family law court along with your marriage certificate (either the original or an official copy from a register office). You should also keep at least one copy for your own records.

Note that you will also have to pay a court fee (current fee of £550) to begin divorce proceedings upon submitting a petition. You may be eligible for a reduction or exemption from court fees if your income falls below a certain threshold or you are on benefits.

Responding to a divorce petition

If your husband or wife has filed for divorce, you will receive the completed divorce petition form, along with a notice of proceedings form (which contains your case number and details of what you must do next) and an acknowledgement of service form. If you agree with the divorce petition, you should fill out the acknowledgement of service form and return this to the court within 8 days.

If you disagree with the divorce petition, you should still complete the acknowledgement of service form but ensure you fill in the part which states you are defending the divorce. Submitted copies of this form will later be sent to your spouse. You will have 21 days after submitting the acknowledgement of service form to explain why you are defending the divorce - known as ‘giving an answer’ - using the answer to a divorce petition form. You may have to pay an additional court fee for giving an answer.

Additionally, you may decide to start your own divorce proceedings against your husband or wife by filing your own divorce petition.

Note that if you do not respond within 21 days of receiving a divorce petition, your spouse will be able to proceed with the divorce as if you have agreed.

Court hearing

If a divorce petition is defended, or both husband and wife issue divorce proceedings, the court will generally hold a hearing to discuss the case, which both parties will normally have to attend to reach an agreement. Legal advice should be taken in the case of a court hearing.

2. Applying for decree nisi

After receiving your spouse’s acknowledgement of service form, you can then apply for a decree nisi. This is essentially a document stating that the court does not see any reason why the divorce cannot proceed.

You can still apply for a decree nisi if your spouse defends the divorce, but you will need to complete section B of the form, requesting a ‘case management hearing’ before the judge. You will then have to attend this hearing to discuss your divorce, at which point the judge will decide whether or not to grant a decree nisi.

Once you have submitted the documentation, if the judge agrees that the divorce can go ahead, you will be sent a certificate of entitlement to a decree, along with the decree nisi itself. Otherwise, you will be sent a ‘notice of refusal of judge’s certificate’ form, stating why a divorce cannot go ahead along with the next steps.

3. Applying for decree absolute

6 weeks after receiving your decree nisi, you can apply for the decree absolute. This is the official legal document which ends your marriage.

The 6 week delay is designed to allow you and your spouse time to discuss arrangements regarding children and finances. Although you can extend this delay, this should be less than 12 months (otherwise you will need to explain the delay to the court).

After the court has received your application and checked that the time limits have been met and there are no reasons to prevent the divorce, it will send a decree absolute to both now former husband and wife.

Note that if your spouse filed for divorce but has not applied for a decree absolute, you can apply - but you have to wait for an extra 3 months (on top of the 6 weeks), pay a fee and go to a court hearing with your spouse.

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