How To File For A Divorce In The UK

Photo Of An Unhappy Couple Facing Away

If your marriage has broken down irretrievably or you feel you have suitable grounds to formally and legally separate from your spouse, you can think about starting divorce proceedings. But beginning that process can be confusing and a little daunting, especially if you have children or high net worth finances to consider. So understanding what happens can go a long way towards reducing your stress and helping you reach a settlement quicker. In this article, we’ll give you the key information you need on how to file for divorce in the UK and answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

What are the grounds for a divorce in the UK?

In England and Wales, many divorce cases are started due to ‘fault’, whether on one side or the other, or both parties taking equal responsibility for fault. The 5 acceptable grounds (or reasons) for divorce are adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, 2-year separation with consent, and 5-year separation – we’ll look into these in more detail below.


Committing adultery refers to a situation where one spouse has had sexual intercourse with someone else of the same or opposite sex. Adultery can be used as grounds for divorce if the other spouse can no longer continue living with the unfaithful spouse. However, adultery won’t be valid as acceptable grounds for divorce if the couple continues to live together for more than six months after the disclosure of adultery.

Unreasonable behaviour

Any behaviour that’s considered to be unacceptable or unreasonable by the other spouse. Some examples of unreasonable behaviour can include verbal abuse, physical violence, drink or drug addiction, failure to contribute to living expenses (including rent or mortgage payments), or a lack of support or care for the other spouse.


Desertion is any situation where one spouse has left or abandoned the other without their agreement or for a good reason. You should show this has been the case for at least two years before you can apply for a divorce.

2 years separation with consent

This ground applies if you have been living apart by mutual agreement for at least two years, and both spouses agree to begin divorce proceedings.

5 years of separation

As an extension of the previous ground, divorce proceedings can begin when the couple has been living apart continuously for at least 5 years, regardless of whether either one of the spouses agrees to the divorce or not. 

These 5 reasons still apply to many divorces, acting as the foundation for the process itself. But it’s worth mentioning that, as of April 2022, a new ‘no-fault divorce’ law came into effect (the Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020), effectively removing the concept of fault from the divorce process. 

There is now no legal requirement to assign blame to one party or the other or even cite one of the 5 accepted grounds previously required as a reason for the marriage breaking down. The purpose of the act’s introduction, apart from revisions and updates to several areas of the process, is to reduce hostilities and conflict between couples who wish to end their marriage for a more agreeable and amicable resolution.

The divorce process

Depending on your and your spouse’s circumstances, divorce proceedings can be complicated and drawn out or relatively straightforward and simple. Either way, it can be emotionally draining for both parties. Below, we list the main stages in the divorce process and explain a little more about them to help you better understand what you’ll experience in your own case.

Divorce application

The first step of any divorce proceedings is to complete a divorce application to the court requesting a divorce. This application must contain all the details of both parties and a ‘statement of irretrievable breakdown’ if relevant (remembering the ‘no-fault divorce’ process is in effect). Divorce applications can be made jointly, known as a Joint Application, or individually where the spouse making the application is known as the Applicant, and the other spouse is known as the Respondent.

Acknowledgement of service

Once the application has gone to the court for processing, the court will issue an Acknowledgement of Service (AOS) to the Respondent. They’ll receive the document and a copy of the divorce application, which they’ll need to complete to advise the court whether or not they intend to defend the divorce. 

The Respondent then has 7 days to respond and acknowledge the document. If there’s been no response within 14 days, you may be able to seek the court’s assistance in serving the Respondent personally. When the AOS is in place, you enter a minimum 20-week period, allowing both parties to adjust to any new setup and make suitable arrangements for finances or childcare before moving on to the next stage.

Conditional order

As part of the Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020, the former ‘Decree Nisi’ was relabeled as a Conditional Order (CO). Once the 20-week period has elapsed, and should there be no complications during the process, the court will issue a CO, which acts as confirmation that you’re allowed to divorce legally. On the same day as the CO is issued, you enter a 6-week waiting period before a Final Order is granted.

Final order

As part of the Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020, the ‘Decree Absolut’ was relabeled as a Final Order (FO). Once the 6-week period has elapsed, you can apply for the FO as the final stage of the divorce process. The court usually grants this within a few days, and you’ll receive a FO certificate confirming the finalisation of your divorce. At this stage, you’re no longer legally married and can remarry at any time if you wish.

How long does a divorce take?

It’s expected that if both parties decide to get divorced, they’ll want it finalised as quickly as possible. But the process and the length of time it takes, can vary depending on several factors. These factors can include the following:

  • Issues or complications with the divorce application
  • A lack of response to the Acknowledgement Of Service
  • A lack of cooperation between parties
  • Waiting for the 20-week ‘cool off’ period
  • Delays in applying for (or receiving) a Conditional or Final Order
  • Agreeing on a divorce settlement

Including the mandatory 20-week period after the Acknowledgement Of Service, the process can take around 6 months to finalise a divorce. But if there are any disputes over issues such as child custody or financial arrangements, the process can take much longer, sometimes even years.

High net-worth divorce cases can often take even longer. This can be down to complex legal issues surrounding onshore or offshore financial assets, any pre and post-nuptial agreements that are in place – and potentially disputed – and any issues surrounding inherited wealth.

How long does it take to settle divorce finances?

It’s important to remember that just because you’re divorcing someone, it doesn’t mean you automatically sever ties financially as well. Dealing with and separating individual or joint finances or assets is the only way to ensure that neither party can claim against the other in the future.

Therefore, the length of time it takes to settle divorce finances can vary depending on the complexity of the case and the willingness of both parties to reach an agreement. In simple cases, if both parties have few assets and there are no disputes over the distribution, it can take as little as a few weeks. 

However, settling more complex cases with significant assets can take several months or even years, such as in high net-worth cases or disputes over the distribution. If both parties can’t reach an agreement, the case may need to go to court, making the process even longer. 

Filing for divorce with Osbourne Pinner

Whatever your reasons for wanting a divorce – whether your case falls into any of the traditionally accepted grounds or you just decide you’re better off apart as friends – you have the right to come out of a relationship where you’re not happy and divorce to end the marriage legally. 

This article should have given you plenty of information on how to file for a divorce. Still, as one of London’s best divorce law firms, our expert team at Osbourne Pinner can offer you legal advice and counsel on all UK divorce-related issues and family law. Contact us today at 0203 983 5080 or email [email protected] to book your consultation.

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