What to expect: The legal process for divorce or dissolution

Getting advice early will help you know what to expect so you can plan for the process. We outline the key steps for the legal process of divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership.

The legal process

To get a divorce or dissolution in England or Wales, you need to follow a set legal process.

You will have to show that you have been married for more than a year and that the marriage has broken down for one of these reasons:

  • Adultery (that your spouse has had an affair).
  • Behaviour (that your spouse has behaved in such a way that you can’t be expected to live together).
  • That your spouse has deserted you for at least two years.
  • That you have been living apart for two years and your spouse also wants a divorce.
  • That you have lived apart for five years.

Stages in a divorce

Petition: The divorce is started by one person (the petitioner) lodging a petition with the court. The petition is a document setting out details of the marriage, names, addresses, dates of birth of any children and the grounds for divorce. The petition is sent to the court with the court fee (unless you qualify for legal aid). The court will stamp the petition and send a copy to your spouse (who will be known as the respondent).

Acknowledgment of Service: When your spouse receives a copy of the petition, they must fill in a form to say they have received it and that they accept the divorce. This is known as an Acknowledgment of Service. If they agree, your divorce will be known as an undefended divorce. If they say that they do not want a divorce (known as contesting), this will be a defended divorce. If your partner does not return the form, you can pay the court to serve the papers in person (using a court bailiff).

Decree nisi: The court will check the divorce papers and if they are happy with them, will issue a decree nisi. A decree nisi means the court agrees that your reasons for the divorce has been proved. A decree nisi does not mean your divorce is final. You must wait six weeks to apply for a decree absolute.

Decree absolute: Six weeks and one day after the decree nisi is granted you can apply for the decree to be made absolute (or final), which finally brings the marriage to an end. If you (as the petitioner) do not make an application within three months, your partner (respondent) can then apply for it.

If the other person defends the divorce, there would have to be a hearing at the court or a court hearing centre, but this is extremely rare.

Alongside that process you and your partner will need to work out arrangements for any children and sort out your family finances and housing arrangements.

How much will a divorce cost?

Lawyers’ costs vary across the country so you should ask them for a quote. Lawyers usually charge an hourly rate for the time they spend on your case, and for each letter or phone call. Sometimes they will charge you on a ‘fixed fee’ or some other basis. After your first meeting with your lawyer, you should be sent a letter (known as a ‘client care’ letter), setting out their charges and the details of who will handle your case.

If you are on a low income or on benefits, you may be entitled to help with your legal costs, known as legal aid, for example if you have evidence that you are a victim of domestic abuse. Your solicitor will tell you if you are entitled to legal aid, even if he or she doesn’t offer legal aid.

Court fees

Whether you use a lawyer or not, you must pay court fees to get a divorce or dissolution. This is currently £550 in England and Wales. There may also be other fees involved, such as your partner having to pay to answer the acknowledgement of service (currently £245). See the gov.uk website for up to date costs.

How long will it take to get a divorce?

If your partner cooperates the divorce is likely to take 4–6 months from start to finish. Sorting out the finances and children through court often takes a lot longer. Sometimes, 12–18 months. Using an alternative method to court can reduce the time it will take, down to a few weeks in some cases.

Find out more about alternatives to court.

Dissolution of a civil partnership

The process for dissolution of civil partnership is the same as for divorce. The only exception is adultery, which is a specific legal term relating to heterosexual sex and which cannot therefore be used as grounds for dissolving a civil partnership. If your partner is unfaithful the grounds for dissolution would instead be unreasonable behaviour.