If you have decided to get a divorce from your partner, make sure you are well informed. Read all the articles about who can apply for a divorce, how long does a divorce take and what happens to your money and property in a divorce.
Getting a divorce in Northern Ireland is similar, but not exactly the same, as the rest of the UK. There are important notable differences in the divorce process. This guide will take you through the steps involved in getting divorced and any Northern Ireland differences will be highlighted.
Something that can add to that already potentially painful process is not knowing enough facts about the divorce process, feeling like you are in the dark with no one telling you what happens at each step along the way.
This guide aims to provide straightforward facts about the divorce process to guide you along the way. But please add a comment to ask a question if anything is unclear or missing from this guide.
Get a divorce solicitor
It is not essential but it is strongly recommended that both partners retain the services of a solicitor. Even where husband and wife both want a divorce and appear to agree on the terms, having a solicitor is still very important.
A solicitor is not being paid to be your friend or to tell you everything you want to hear. You will be paying your solicitor to advise you in all legal matters concerning getting a divorce and dealing directly with your spouse’s solicitor and the court, when proceedings reach that stage.
Having a solicitor can also take away some of the direct stress of dealing with the divorce process by acting as an intermediary in negotiations or as a sounding board for your questions. Also if your relationship has broken down to the point where both partners are not communicating in any way, acting through solicitors will speed things along.
How to find a divorce solicitor
Often the best advice is to ask a friend who has been through a divorce if they would recommend the solicitor they used. Sadly with the divorce rate as high as it is, there is a good chance that you know one or more people who have been through a divorce.
If you don’t know anyone that has gotten divorced or you would feel uncomfortable asking your friends or family about this personal matter, you will need to find a solicitor the hard way. Have a look in your local paper or search online for solicitors specialising in Family Law.
Make an appointment with the solicitor to discuss your situation. After meeting with a solicitor you will have a better idea if you feel comfortable with them (both as a person and a professional), whether can talk freely with them and whether you feel that they know what they are talking about.
Before retaining a solicitor for your divorce, make sure to find out their costs, like hourly rate and make sure you have the funds to pay for their services.
Agreeing a financial settlement with your spouse
A financial settlement is a legally binding document, agreed by husband and wife, which details the specifics of how your possessions, property and financial interests will be split. Often this deals with what happens to a house that was the marital home. If you, as a couple, had loans, credit cards, savings, property or other valuables, the financial agreement will spell out each party’s share and responsibilities.
In the event that there are children in the family, the courts will want to make sure that there are provisions for the upkeep and support of those children.
A financial settlement can be agreed between the parties at any time in the divorce process, but it is recommended that it is finalised prior to the Decree Absolute stage (the point at which you are formally divorced).
More details can be found in the separate article about getting a financial settlement in a divorce.
Applying to the court for a divorce (grounds for divorce)
The first step in getting a divorce will be for your solicitor to complete a divorce petition. When this document is submitted to the court it is commonly known as filing for divorce.
Either spouse can ask their solicitor to complete a divorce petition and file for divorce. The partner that files for divorce is known as the Petitioner going forwards, and the other partner is referred to as the Respondent. In other words, the Petitioner must petition the court for a divorce and the Respondent must respond to the divorce petition when it is served upon them.
Although either party can apply for the divorce, there are certain small advantages with being the Petitioner. You may feel like you are slightly more in control of the divorce process if you are the Petitioner and submit the paperwork on your timescale.
Note however that there are always fees involved with submitting court documents, so the petitioner may incur additional costs because of these fixed fees. The solicitor may pay these fees on your behalf but they will eventually form part of their bills to you. Or they might ask you for an advance payment to cover the costs of any disbursements like this.
A divorce petition is a standard document that will be submitted by your solicitor to the court. It will detail who the two parties are and where they currently live. It will include details about the date and place of the marriage ceremony and will mention details like whether there are any children in the family.
Importantly it will also include details of the Grounds for Divorce. These are the reasons why you, as the Petitioner, want to get a divorce from your husband or wife.
In the UK, there are five allowable grounds for divorce,
– Unreasonable Behaviour
– Desertion for two years
– Living apart for two years where both parties agree to the divorce
– Living apart for five years
There are some minor variations regarding these grounds in the different jurisdictions within the UK, but they are basically the same.
When your solicitor has completed the divorce petition, they will send it on your behalf to the court for consideration. A Judge or Master of the court will review the submitted information and decide whether the minimum required time has elapsed since you were married and whether you have valid grounds for divorce.
Your solicitor will provide you with specific details but, as mentioned above, there will be a charge for submitting these papers to the court which will be passed on to you.
Having divorce papers served on your partner
If the court finds that all paperwork with your divorce petition is in order, they will send a copy of the papers back to your solicitor to be served on your partner, the Respondent. Your solicitor will post the paperwork to your partner along with the forms that they need to sign and return within a short period of time.
When your husband or wife is served with the divorce papers (receives them through the post) the paperwork will advise them that they have two options.
Either they, the Respondent, will contest the divorce, in which case they may counter-petition for divorce on separate grounds. Or they will not contest the grounds for divorce, in which case things can proceed more smoothly.
In effect, the Respondent also has a third option – doing nothing. If they do not respond either way to the divorce papers, your solicitor can apply to the court to get a certified copy of the papers and they will try again to have them served on your partner. In some cases your solicitor will employ a process server to do this. A process server is someone will turn up at your partner’s home or place of work and attempt to serve the papers on your spouse in person.
If the Respondent still does not reply, your solicitor will have to apply to the court to have service deemed good. This will involve your solicitor completing an affidavit to state that all reasonable steps have been taken to serve the papers but no reply has been forthcoming. A Judge or Master of the Court may then decide that the papers have been served and the divorce can proceed uncontested.
See the separate article regarding having service deemed good for further details.
The decree nisi hearing
Your solicitor will apply to the court for a decree nisi hearing, which is effectively the first stage of getting a divorce.
In Northern Ireland, the Petitioner must always attend the decree nisi hearing with their solicitor regardless of whether the divorce is contested or not. In the rest of the UK, neither partner needs to attend an uncontested divorce decree nisi hearing.
At the decree nisi hearing, evidence will be put toward the court by your solicitor based on your divorce petition, including your grounds for divorce. The Judge or Master of the Court will then decide whether there is any reason why you cannot get a divorce. Assuming there are no issues, they will grant the decree nisi.
The decree absolute
Six weeks and one day after your decree nisi is granted, the Petitioner may apply to the court for the decree absolute.
It is not necessary to proceed to decree absolute immediately. Some couples prefer to wait for several months before applying for the decree absolute. In many cases this also allows time for financial settlements to be thrashed out, finalised and made an order of the court.
A decree absolute is the final stage in getting a divorce. Assuming all time limits have been adhered to and provisions made for children, and no reasons have appeared that would prevent divorce, the court will grant the decree absolute and provide you with the decree absolute certificate.
Once the decree absolute has been granted, you are divorced, you are no longer married. If you wish to remarry you are allowed to do so.
You should keep your decree absolute certificate in a safe place. It is evidence of your new marital status and your ability to get remarried if you wish to do so. It may also be required if you ever need to prove, for any reason, that you are no longer legally connected to your former partner.