There isn’t necessarily a hard and fast answer to this question, as even the most amicable and seemingly straightforward divorces can meet unexpected complications. There factors that contribute to the overall length of a divorce, usually how quickly financial agreements can be finalised, or whether the divorcing parties need to involve the courts.
Statistics around divorce are also increasingly hard to decipher any real trends from.
For example, 2019 saw a 34.3% decrease in UK divorce rates since 1993, a year with a particularly high number of divorces. However, when we consider that more couples are co-habiting rather than getting married these days, this doesn’t seem like such a jump. More people are also getting married later in life, at a time when they might be more financially and emotionally mature.
However, according to the ONS, when we compare 2019 to 2018, there are increases in divorce rates of around 18% year on year which seems shocking. The scale of this however, can be attributed to a backlog of casework carried over from 2018 which is likely to have translated into a much higher number of completed divorces in 2019.
The latest divorce statistics show that 103,592 couples divorced in 2020. Interestingly, this was a 4% decrease on the previous year. However, the impact of COVID and subsequent court delays mean that the number of completed divorce proceedings was probably significantly affected.
In fact, many law firms reported spikes in divorce enquires during the pandemic. Hegarty has seen an 18% increase in online divorce enquires over the past two years and The Independent reported that divorce enquires to law firms surged by 95% when comparing the first three months of 2020 and 2021.
Divorce can be a challenging time for all involved and is an incredibly important decision that needs careful consideration. We’ve broken down the various variables and processes that comprise a divorce proceeding from start to finish to help shed some light on how long a divorce might take.
Grounds for divorce
On the 6th of April 2022 the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 (the ‘DDSA’) brought substantial changes to the divorce process in England and Wales.
Previously, old divorce law involved parties needing to provide one of five reasons to evidence the fact that their marriage had broken down; adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, two years separation (if both parties agreed), or five years separation (if only one person wanted the divorce).
The DDSA aims to reduce conflict between couples legally ending a marriage or civil partnership as no fault now needs to be assigned to one spouse. If you wish to file for divorce today, there no longer needs to be ‘blame’ attributed to either spouse and citing one of the five reasons is no longer required. Instead, the ‘irretrievable breakdown’ is now evidenced by simply signing an online form.
The main changes the DDSA has brought to divorce law are:
- Spouses can now jointly apply to end their marriage
- There is no longer any need for one spouse to be ‘blamed’
- Divorces started by only one spouse can no longer be contested by the other spouse (save for on the grounds that the marriage is not valid)
- The key language involved in the divorce process has been modernised
As there is no need to blame one spouse for a marriage breakdown, and the possibility of contesting a divorce – one of the biggest potential sources of delay – has also been removed, in theory divorces should be a quicker, easier and hopefully a more amicable experience for all involved.
However, the new no fault divorce law may actually mean that divorce proceedings take slightly longer in most cases.
Previously, a divorce could typically take around 4-6 months, (if there was no contestation and there was no need to wait for financial agreements to be finalised).
Under the new divorce rules, it will take around 7 months at least to get a divorce. This is because there is now a new mandatory ‘cooling off period’. This means that post 6th April 2022, most couples may have to wait a little longer to finalise a divorce.
However, this is arguably balanced out by the simplification of the process and removal of the need to assign blame for the failure of the marriage.
No-fault divorce, with a statement of irretrievable breakdown, is currently the only form of divorce in the UK.
Average length of time a divorce takes
Strictly speaking, a divorce in the UK will take at least 26 weeks or 6 months. We can be sure of that because there is the new mandatory cooling off period of 20 weeks between the issue of the Divorce and when you can apply for the Conditional Order and as has always been the case you cannot apply for the Final Order until 6 weeks and a day have past from the Conditional Order. These periods can be waived, but only in exceptional circumstances.
Other factors too, such as financial agreements and court schedules can have an impact on the length of time a divorce can take from start to finish.
A reasonable estimate is between 6-8 months, for a relatively amicable and straightforward divorce, but there is no set rule.
In fact, some of the longest divorces in history have taken decades. Celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s divorce took 10 years to complete and back in 2017, a judge ended the UK’s longest divorce battle of 16 years.
What happens if one party moves abroad?
If you wish to divorce but your spouse lives abroad, you can still apply to divorce in England and Wales. As long as either you or your spouse (or both) are ‘habitually resident’ in England or Wales or have been for at least a year prior to the application, you can follow the usual divorce process.
Habitual residence is considered by the courts to be the place you reside in regularly – where you live and work. The place you call home.
If your spouse lives abroad however, you may find that it takes slightly longer to conclude your divorce.
It is important to employ the services of a divorce lawyer who understands international divorce laws to help you overcome any complexities associated with this.
There are several factors that may lengthen the divorce process, particularly those related to financial agreements.
A divorce settlement details the exact division of matrimonial assets, spousal maintenance as well as any property matters.
Any financial matters that will be affected by the divorce should be covered within this settlement and the agreement should be reached as early as possible to avoid any delays in the divorce proceedings.
If you and your spouse can agree these financial details voluntarily, this can take as little as a few weeks to arrange. A family lawyer can help draw up an agreement for you in a document that clearly sets out the financial arrangements between you both. The agreement can then be made legally binding by applying to the court for a financial consent order as part of the divorce process.
A financial consent order will ensure that you and your spouse’s finances become separate, and neither person can make a claim against the other in the future.
However, if spouses cannot agree the financial details of a divorce, they will likely need to apply to a judge to decide for them. This will usually take between nine to 18 months, depending on how far in the future your court hearings are set and whether an early settlement can be reached. If either spouse decides to appeal the judge’s initial decision, then it will take even longer.
The steps of divorce: A timeline
We’ve broken down the different stages of divorce, from the very first moment someone looks for a solicitor to receiving the final order, with some estimated timelines. There are several applications to make along the way, as well as cooling off periods which have to be adhered to. How quickly divorcing parties can agree on financial arrangements too, will greatly affect how long the overall process will take.
Stage 1: Consultation
If you have decided on or are considering a divorce, a consultation with a family lawyer is the first step. These consultations are often offered at a fixed fee to help point you in the right direction and discuss your case. This time is useful to find out what your options are before deciding to take further action. At Hegarty, an initial advice appointment with one of our family lawyers is a fixed fee of £250 +VAT.
Stage 2: Appoint your solicitor
If you have decided that you want to apply for divorce, it is advisable to appoint a divorce solicitor to either support you or act on your behalf. Your solicitor will help you navigate through the different stages of divorce proceedings and provide sound advice around any legal implications along the way.
Stage 3: The divorce application
Following the DDSA, the application can now be made via an online court portal, or by post, and it costs £593. Applying online will usually mean your divorce application will be processed more quickly.
A divorce application will usually be completed by your divorce solicitor, who can advise you on how to correctly fill out the relevant paperwork and ensure there are no errors that could hold up your application.
Depending on whether you have already appointed a solicitor and how soon you arrange an appointment with them, the divorce application process could take a couple of days to a few weeks.
On the divorce application you will need to provide your full name and address, your spouse’s full name and address and proof of your marriage certificate.
If you don’t have your marriage certificate, you can request a copy online for £9.25.
If your marriage certificate is in another language, you’ll have to include a certified translation.
If you don’t know your spouse’s address, you will need to fill out other forms to have it sent via email, which will incur another fee. Alternatively, if you don’t want your spouse to know your address, you can request that your address is not revealed.
Your divorce solicitor will be able to help you with the ins and outs of this application to ensure you are providing all the information required.
Stage 4: The acknowledgement of service
What happens at this stage depends very much on whether you have applied on your own, or jointly with your spouse.
If one spouse has made a sole application (the applicant), the other spouse (the respondent) is required to confirm receipt of the application. This is done by filling out and sending back an ‘acknowledgement of service’ which must be completed within 14 days of the respondent receiving the application.
Under the new no fault divorce rules (DDSA), respondents are no longer able to contest or refuse to acknowledge a divorce application which speeds the process up significantly.
Previously, if the responding spouse decided to defend the divorce, both spouses would have been required to attend a court hearing for a judge to decide whether to grant the divorce. This would have a significant impact on the length of the divorce proceedings.
If you have applied jointly with your spouse, you’ll both receive a copy of the divorce application as well as an ‘acknowledgement receipt’ and there is no need to respond to this. Understandably, a joint divorce application is likely to move more quickly than a sole application.
Stage 5: 20-week cooling off period
Once the respondent returns the acknowledgement of service form, your application enters a 20-week cooling off period which runs from the date of issue.
The cooling off period is designed to help you reflect on your divorce decision and encourage you to discuss financial matters with your spouse.
After 20 weeks, you can apply for a conditional order, which was called a decree nisi.
Stage 6: The conditional order
It is important to remember that this 20-week cooling off period is a minimum time frame. It could take longer for the court to issue a conditional order, depending on a number of factors.
The conditional order is the first of the two court orders that make up the divorce process, along with the final order.
Once the judge has received the divorce application, conditional order application and the signed acknowledgment of service from the respondent in the case of a sole application, the divorce application is considered.
If all paperwork is complete and the court is satisfied with the application, it will issue a conditional order which is a legal document confirming that there is no reason why a couple should not be allowed to proceed with their divorce.
Both parties will receive a letter called the ‘certificate of entitlement’ confirming the date that the conditional order will be granted. Thereafter they will receive their conditional order.
At this point the divorce is not final, it is simply confirming that you can get divorced in principle.
Stage 7: Six week cooling off period
Once a conditional order has been issued; applicants can then apply for a final order. Final orders were once known as decree absolutes. A final order is legal confirmation that the marriage has officially ended.
Applicants can apply for a final order a minimum of 6 weeks and one day after a conditional order is issued.
Stage 8: The final order
This is the last stage of divorce and once the court has issued a final order, it formally marks the end of your marriage or civil partnership.
You should keep your final order as you may require it if you remarry or change back to your maiden name.
Importantly, if you do not apply for a final order within 12 months of getting the conditional order, you will have to explain the delay to the court.
Like the cost of a divorce, there is no set rule when it comes to how long one might take.
Regardless of how long a divorce takes to complete, the breakdown of a marriage for all involved can be an incredibly confusing, frustrating and difficult time. At Hegarty, our family law specialists will guide you through the complexities of any divorce process. Make an appointment with our family law experts if you are interested in practical, helpful advice and support regarding divorce.