The first steps towards splitting up can be the hardest to take, particularly if the decision to split wasn’t yours.

The percentage of marriages that end in divorce has been steadily rising over the decades, but it’s rarely something that couples contemplate lightly. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of divorces in England and Wales increased by 9.6% to 113,505 in 2021, up from 103,592 in 2020. Over recent years, the over-55s in particular have seen some of the biggest rise in divorce rates.

One thing that couples may worry about, or feel is unfair, is the fact that the reasons for divorce don’t necessarily affect the financial outcome. However it’s useful to have an understanding of when and why you can get divorced, and what the divorce process involves to simplify the early stages.

Here, we explain the first steps in the divorce process, and where you can seek further help.

The grounds for divorce

You need to consider on what grounds you’re filing for divorce before you can start the process. In England and Wales, there are five possible reasons for divorce:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour
  • Two years separation with consent
  • Two years desertion
  • Five years separation without consent

Unreasonable behaviour has often been cited as the reason in cases when none of the other options apply, if spouses do not want to remain married any longer.

In Scotland, the rules are different. You can get divorced after a year’s separation with consent and after two years without consent, but desertion is no longer accepted as a ‘fact’. If you live in England or Wales, you cannot get divorced until you have been married for a year, whereas in Scotland there’s no minimum waiting period.

Read more in our article Divorce laws: the basics.

No-fault divorce

Divorce laws were relaxed on 6 April 2022 to allow for ‘no-fault’ divorces, without the need to prove unreasonable behaviour. The changes were designed to modernise the divorce process for couples in England and Wales, with a divorce allowed after waiting just six months with a sole or joint statement by one or both parties. You now don’t need to submit any further evidence that the marriage has broken down.

How long will the divorce process take?

This depends on your personal circumstances, and whether you seek legal advice and have to go through the courts, and the reason why. If you cannot agree on the grounds for divorce, or it’s a particularly acrimonious split involving custody and financial disputes, chances are, it’ll take longer and the process will cost more money.

However, if it’s a relatively straightforward case, getting a divorce finalised can take six months to about a year. You do not have to wait two years to divorce if you can prove that your marriage has irretrievably broken down, and you agree on the reasons why.

Divorce outside England and Wales

If you’re getting divorced it’s important to get the right advice before decisions are made and before divorce proceedings are started.

Bear in mind that if either of you are from a country outside of England and Wales (both Scotland and Northern Ireland are different countries for the purpose of divorce) or one or both of you lives in another country (even temporarily), you may have a choice about where divorce proceedings start.

This is important because the financial consequences may be very different in other countries. If this applies to you, get advice from a lawyer who deals with international cases.

Seeing a lawyer

Whatever your circumstances, you need to be able to make informed decisions. It’s typically worth arranging a meeting with a specialist family lawyer so you know what your options are, even if you then decide you’ll deal with the divorce yourself.

A good place to start is by searching the website of family law group Resolution. It has 6,500 members who aim to use a non-confrontational approach. Sometimes divorce lawyers can fan the flames of animosity, which invariably only results in higher divorce costs and more emotional pain all round.

Of course, you don’t have to use a lawyer to divorce (although if there are financial issues to be resolved or you have concerns about your children you should take advice). You will find all of the information and forms that you need on the website.

How much does getting a divorce cost?

For starters, the person applying for the divorce will need to pay the fee, which stands at £593 for making a divorce application to the divorce centre. However, you may be able to get help paying the fee if you cannot afford it, and you can find out more about available help here.

If you believe your partner should be paying the fee, but you are petitioning for divorce, you can tick a box on the form to ask the court to consider making them pay for this. If they agree during the process, your partner must repay you once the divorce is finalised.

Of course, the actual cost of divorce can run into thousands of pounds. According to Money Helper, the average cost of a divorce in the UK stands at a total of £14,561 in legal fees and costs, but the amount depends on a wide range of factors.

Financial Settlements on divorce

Divorce lawyers are often asked in the early days how much someone may receive or have to give up when they get divorced. It’s quite difficult for them to give a direct answer as cases vary (except in Scotland, where the guidelines are more closely adhered to), but in very broad terms, you can usually expect to divide equally all the assets (such as home, investments, pension, etc) that have been built up during the marriage.

Only a very small percentage of financial settlements are decided by the courts. Most divorcing couples make their own arrangements either directly or with the help of a lawyer or mediator. If you do this, get the agreement ratified by the court so that your ex can’t make claims against you later.

For more information on mediation, visit the National Family Mediation website. More divorcing couples than ever are seeking ways to go through the separation process amicably, without the need for lawyers.

Find out more about financial settlements in our articles Sorting out your finances when a relationship ends and How are pensions shared in divorce.

Seeking support

If you need emotional support, the relationship counselling service Relate deals with marriage and relationship breakdown as well as helping couples stay together.

You may find it easier to talk to someone you don’t know, or you might hate the idea of opening up to a stranger; either way, make sure you have a network of support as you’re likely to need it.