Divorce demystified – The 6 key stages

The terms decree nisi and decree absolute are often mentioned in the media in connection with celebrity divorces but what do they actually mean?

The legal terminology and descriptions of the different stages of a divorce can be bewildering and often adds to the apprehension associated with what is already a stressful situation for those seeking a divorce. Our Family Law specialist, Rachel Macwilliam, explains the 6 main stages of the divorce process in plain English. Beneath her article you will also find a summary of the main legal terms used regarding divorce.

Stage 1: Petition filed with the Court
The process begins by the person initiating the divorce (‘the Petitioner’) filing a legal document with a centralised court (in the South West, this is in Southampton). This document is called a ‘Petition’. It marks the start of the divorce process. The party issuing the petition is known as the ‘Petitioner’.

Once the court has received the petition, a case number will be allocated, and copies of the document will then be sent to the spouse (husband/wife) of the person who has filed them with the court. This process is called ‘Issuing a divorce’ and can take around 2-3 weeks.

Stage 2: Acknowledgement & Response
When the divorce papers are received by the spouse (known as the ‘Respondent’), they must respond to the court on a specific form called an ‘Acknowledgment of service’, usually within seven days. This is to confirm whether they agree to the process continuing, if they are instructing solicitors (asking a solicitor to act on their behalf) and also to confirm whether they are willing to pay the legal costs of the petitioner, if this has been requested.

In the petition, ‘the Petitioner’ can tick a box saying that they want an order that ‘the Respondent’ will pay their costs of the divorce. This is known as making a claim for costs and in the acknowledgment of service, a respondent can indicate whether they agree to pay those costs or whether they object to it.

Stage 3: Decree Nisi
A decree nisi is a document that says that the Court sees no reason why the couple cannot divorce and that they are satisfied that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. A decree nisi is ‘pronounced’ at a hearing by a judge but, unless the two exceptions below apply, neither party has to attend this hearing – typically a list of decree nisi applications will all be pronounced at the same time and the hearing is simply a formality.

If the spouse does not agree to the divorce, it is still possible to apply for a decree nisi, but the case will have to go to a court hearing where a judge will decide whether to grant a decree nisi.
If there has been a claim for costs in the petition, this will also be dealt with at the decree nisi hearing if the paying spouse objects to the claim.

Stage 4: Order from the Court
Once the decree nisi has been granted, an order from the Court is sent to ‘the Petitioner’s’ solicitor. This is basically the first formal severing of ties between the parties. The decree nisi is the cutting of the first tie and the decree absolute cuts the second, ending the marriage.

Stage 5: Financial Arrangements
One of the most important (and often contentious) aspects of a divorce is dealing with what happens to the assets such as property, savings and pensions that married couples own when they get divorced. Although you can get legally divorced without finalising this aspect, most solicitors will advise you to reach a financial agreement before the final stage of the process. Once you and your spouse have reached an agreement, this is put into a document known as a ‘Consent order’, which is then sent to the Court for approval by a judge.

Stage 6: Decree Absolute
Six weeks and one day after the decree nisi has been granted, ‘the Petitioner’ can apply for a decree absolute, which is the legal document that ends the marriage.

If ‘the Petitioner’ does not apply for decree absolute within three months of the date of the decree nisi, ‘the Respondent’ is then able to make the application themselves, although there may be reasons (usually because no agreement has been reached about the finances) that the other party might resist the application.

In terms of timescales, the process of divorce from petition to decree absolute can take between 4-6 months to complete. However, if there are complications regarding finances or cooperation it can take a good deal longer. We are also currently experiencing long delays with the Court which is having an impact on the length of time the process is taking.

At Penderlaw we are proud of our reputation as a straight-talking, friendly and efficient firm of solicitors. This approach naturally extends to our transparent pricing policy. Whilst costs for some matters fall into our fixed price quote pricing structure, others may require a more tailored approach, and therefore are estimated or quoted individually. Costs detailed within the quotes we provide are broken down and explained in detail.

Initial 30-minute meeting and letter of written advice £175 +VAT
Divorce From £1,000 +VAT

Our fees are charged hourly from £125 to £240 per hour, depending on the seniority and experience of the lawyer. This does not include the court petition fee of £550 or consent order fee of £50.

Changes in the law
It should be noted that whilst the above stages are currently correct, there is a bill called the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill currently going through parliament which could potentially impact the process. We will of course post another blog about any changes once they are published.

Summary of legal terms used in divorce proceedings

SpouseHusband or wife
InstructingAsking a solicitor to act on your behalf
PetitionLegal document requesting a divorce
PetitionerPerson initiating the divorce
RespondentPerson receiving the divorce papers
Acknowledgement of ServiceForm used to reply to the divorce petition
Decree NisiDocument from court agreeing divorce can proceed
Order from the CourtFirst formal stage of severing of ties between the couple
Consent OrderAgreement of financial arrangements following the divorce
Decree AbsoluteDocument from court finalising the divorce

Get in touch
If you would like to discuss a family law matter, please contact our specialist, Rachel Macwilliam on 01872 241408 or email family@penderlaw.co.uk