Bringing a marriage to an end involves a court process which formally dissolves your legal connection as spouses. Common law marriage does not exist under UK law, so you will only be recognised as being legally married if you have been through a valid ceremony or registration process. If you are not legally married, then the legal position if you separate is governed by the law on cohabitation (find out more about cohabitation disputes).
For same-sex couples, you will be legally married if you have been through a legal marriage ceremony in the UK, or if you have converted a civil partnership into a marriage or if you have married overseas.
If you are in a multi-national relationship, married overseas or don't live in the UK, you may need to check that the UK court has the power to deal with your divorce.
You will have to satisfy the family court that your marriage has irretrievably broken down and that you can satisfy one of the specific grounds which are:
Some couples prefer to wait until they have been separated for two years so that a divorce petition can be filed without detailing the difficulties between them. However, there are ways of handling unreasonable behaviour petitions sensitively for those who wish to get divorced amicably before they have been separated for two years.
The divorce process generally takes around 3-4 months and is usually completed on paper, with the judge looking at the papers sitting in private at court. It is very unusual to be asked to attend court. If there are financial or children issues to resolve, these are dealt with in separate proceedings which often run alongside the divorce process. Find out more about resolving financial issues and about resolving children disputes.
One partner (the petitioner) must prepare the divorce petition and send it to the court, together with the court fee. It is important to draft the petition correctly or the court will return it. The petition should give details about the grounds for divorce. It should also say whether the petitioner intends to make any financial claims (which must be dealt with in separate proceedings) and whether the petitioner wishes to claim the costs from his or her spouse (which is possible where the petition is based on the other party's unreasonable behaviour or adultery). The issue of costs is a sensitive one and it is often sensible to try and resolve this in advance by negotiation.
Once received, the court will issue the petition (stamp it and give it a case number) and send the petition and an acknowledgement of service form to the other spouse (the respondent).
The respondent needs to complete the acknowledgement of service form, and send it back to the court within seven days. The response should indicate whether the respondent accepts that the marriage should come to an end, or wishes to defend the petition (or to file a cross petition). Most petitions are undefended, because if one party wants the marriage to come to an end it is not usually realistic to argue that it should continue. If the divorce is undefended, this does not mean that all the financial or children issues are agreed; these issues will be dealt with separately. The respondent will also need to say whether he or she agrees to pay the costs, to make a contribution toward them, or disputes paying any costs.
The petitioner then completes a court form called a statement in support of the petition. He or she files this with the court (attaching the respondent's acknowledgment of service) and asks the court to set a date for decree nisi. A judge will look at the application and decide whether the procedure has been completed correctly and whether the grounds for divorce are adequately satisfied. If so, the judge will set a date for decree nisi. Decree nisi means that the divorce will be made final unless the respondent shows a reason (within six weeks) why it should not.
Six weeks and one day after the date of decree nisi, the petitioner can apply for decree absolute which is the final order confirming the divorce. If the petitioner does not apply, the respondent can apply three months after the date of decree nisi.