Stages of divorce: from divorce petition to decree absolute

Reviewed by Julian Hawkhead, senior partner, Stowe Family Law

Angry couple with arms crossed looking at each other on a sofa

There are nine key stages of divorce in England and Wales, from the initial divorce petition through 'decree nisi' and finally 'decree absolute'.

This article summarises these stages of divorce in simple terms. The same stages apply for dissolution of a civil partnership.

While you can still apply for a divorce by post, HM Courts & Tribunals Service offers an online service (one that is used by individuals, and another that is used by solicitors).

Divorce petition - stage 1

The person seeking a divorce(the 'applicant', still usually referred to as the petitioner) files a divorce petition (now called a 'matrimonial order').

The applicant fills in a divorce petition form. You send two copies (or three if you named someone who your husband or wife had an affair with, because they will be sent a copy), together with the original or an officially certified copy of your marriage/civil partnership certificate and the £550 fee (see Civil and family court fees) to your nearest divorce court.

From 6 April 2022 (or perhaps later), divorce law will change. Divorce will be on a 'no-fault' basis, to encourage amicable proceedings. The whole divorce process will become much simpler and easier.

Court informs respondent - stage 2

The court sends a divorce petition and other documentation to the husband or wife of the petitioner/applicant (the 'respondent').

Acknowledgement of service - stage 3

The respondent replies to the court by sending a completed acknowledgement of service form.

Confirmation of acknowledgement to petitioner/applicant - stage 4

The court sends a copy of the acknowledgement of service form to the petitioner/applicant.

Respondent's opportunity to oppose - stage 5

If the respondent opposes the divorce, they have 21 days to complete and send to the court an Answer to a divorce petition form stating their reasons. There is also a fee payable (see Civil and family court fees).

The respondent can also choose to start divorce proceedings against the original petitioner/applicant, for example, with a counter claim about the adultery or unreasonable behaviour or that person. The process and fee are the same as at stage 2.

Petitioner applies for decree nisi - stage 6

The application for a decree nisi is a 'request to proceed'.

The petitioner/applicant completes and sends the court an Application for a decree nisi form, together with a copy of the respondent's response to the divorce petition and a statement form in which the petitioner/applicant confirms the facts set out in the original divorce petition.

There are five types of statement depending on the grounds for the divorce (eg adultery or unreasonable behaviour).

Decree nisi granted - stage 7

Before the judge proceeds to decree nisi they will first issue the ‘certificate of entitlement’ which is basically a letter from the court confirming they approve your divorce application and notifying the parties of the date when the decree nisi will be pronounced. If the petitioner has applied for some or all of their legal costs to be paid by the other party, the court will also make a decision on this matter.

At this stage of divorce the judge will grant decree nisi - as long as the respondent does not oppose the divorce and the judge agrees with the grounds.

This means the judge can see no legal reason for the divorce not to go ahead.

If the respondent opposes the divorce, there is a court hearing. Following that, the judge may grant decree nisi or send both parties a 'notice of refusal of judge's certificate' form, saying why they can't divorce.

The judge may ask for more information or order a court hearing as the next step.

Petitioner applies for 'decree absolute' - stage 8

Six weeks and one day after the decree nisi has been granted, the petitioner/applicant can apply for a decree absolute, which is the legal document that ends the marriage.

You use the Notice of application for decree nisi to be made absolute form. Or, if four-and-a-half months have passed since the grant of decree nisi and the petitioner/applicant has failed to apply, the respondent can apply for decree absolute using an Application notice form.

Decree absolute granted - stage 9

This is the last of the stages of divorce and marks the end of the marriage in legal terms.

Note that these stages of divorce only cover the divorce itself - ie the ending of the marriage. You may also want the court to deal with financial issues and with arrangements for the children.

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