10 essential things to know and do before filing for divorce

Despite divorce rates being at their lowest level in 40 years, almost half of all marriages in the UK, 42% to be precise, still end in divorce. And whether it’s you or your spouse instigating the break-up, it’s almost always a complicated and emotionally tumultuous time.

There are, however, a number of ways you can steel yourself for the journey. By arming yourself with knowledge of what’s to come, employing an experienced matrimonial solicitor, and taking the following steps, you’ll not only make the ride a little less rocky, but improve your chances of a happier outcome.

  1. Be certain you want a divorce. Decisions made in haste, anger, passion or grief can cause a myriad of regrets and problems later on. You need time and space to really think about the reality of permanently separating from your spouse. Take time alone, confide in trusted friends or family members and seek relationship advice. If after this you remain convinced that divorce is the right route for you, then take strength from the fact you were able to make a tough decision, and prepare to take the next step.
  2. Find out if you’re eligible for divorce. If you’ve been married for over a year and your relationship has permanently broken down, then yes, you are able to file for divorce in England and Wales. (Read up on the rules for Scotland here and Northern Ireland here.)
  3. Know the difference between an undefended and defended divorce. If you and your spouse agree to the split, it is an “undefended” or “uncontested” divorce. This usually takes about six months, including the time it takes for the court to process the papers and a wait of at least 6 weeks between the “decree nisi” (provisional divorce) and the “decree absolute” (the final order). If one of you doesn’t agree, however, you’ll need to prepare yourself for a “defended” or “contested” divorce. This will last longer, although a pre-nuptial agreement will expedite it. Either way, defended or undefended, you will need to prove that your marriage has irretrievably broken down (see point 4 below).
  4. Ascertain the grounds on which you are filing for divorce. There is only one basic ground for divorce, and that’s “irretrievable breakdown”. This needs to be proven with evidence of one or more of the following: adultery, unreasonable behaviour; desertion; two years of separation with consent or five years of separation without consent. For a more detailed look at what each of these entails, visit this government page and speak to your solicitor (see point 6 below).
  5. Be aware that the reasons given for the breakdown rarely affect the division of assets or access to the children. This comes as a surprise to many people, but in the majority of cases, the reasons you’ve given for “irretrievable breakdown” have almost no bearing on how much money or property you’re left with or how access to the children will be meted out. If your spouse has been unfaithful, you often imagine they are to “blame” and there will be ramifications. This is unlikely to be the case. Cases featuring violence are more complicated. See this online resource for more information.
  6. Employ a specialist matrimonial solicitor. Even if you’re looking at an undefended divorce, hiring a solicitor to guide you through the legal maze will prove invaluable, not only to the length of time the divorce takes and the outcome, but to your own peace of mind. A solicitor will advise you on whether or not there are sufficient grounds, which grounds are appropriate and what evidence may be needed. In a contested divorce, both parties need a solicitor, and often later a barrister, which your solicitor will arrange.
  7. Get to grips with your financial situation. The division of assets and finances is one of the most dreaded aspects of divorce. All property owned by you and your spouse, from large investments and properties down to wedding presents and other gifts, will be taken into account by the court when arriving at a financial settlement. Digging out copies of statements, receipts and credit reports and figuring out exactly what you own and what you owe, though time-consuming, is vital.
  8. Try to avoid bitterness when it comes to belongings. Fighting over possessions causes untold unhappiness and anger during divorce. Though you might feel like punishing your spouse, and possessions seem an easy weapon, ultimately it will only make your own situation more unhappy. Try to avoid getting into petty arguments by knowing your financial situation (point 7 above) and by focusing on your new life, as opposed to looking back at the old. Being relaxed about who gets what might see your spouse affording you the same courtesy.
  9. Attempt to reach an agreement about the children and living arrangements .If you cannot agree arrangements with your partner, you may need to apply to court to make arrangements involving your children’s living arrangements. However, if you can decide this very emotional issue without the need for an application to court this will save a lot of heartache. If you need extra help reaching a decision, ask your solicitor to recommend a good mediator, if they haven’t done so already. This is a useful document about child arrangements.
  10. Take care of your mental health. Divorce is one of the most stressful events a person can experience. Unchecked stress can lead to severe conditions such as panic attacks and depression, so it’s crucial you look after yourself throughout the process. Try to keep communications with your spouse civil, talk to friends and relatives, ask for help, personal and professional if you need to and read this guide from the NHS about reducing stress and anxiety.

Nobody enters into a marriage thinking it will come to an end. However, with a good solicitor at your side, by trying to keep communication with your spouse civil, and by knowing the process you can reduce its emotional impact and improve the outcome. In the words of the US writer Mitch Albom: “All endings are actually beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.”

If you need some advice about divorce, contact our matrimonial specialists, Managing Partner Rajan Berry: 020 7731 9105; rb@woodfords.co.uk or Holly Berner: 020 7731 9103; hb@woodfords.co.uk

Useful links
Relate counselling
Government website
Citizens advice