Divorce Law UK

Updated April 17, 2017

There are five legal grounds for divorce in the UK, all ultimately based on the concept of “irretrievable breakdown” of marriage. Unlike in the United States, “irreconcilable differences” is not a ground for divorce. The quickest and most common way British couples divorce is by one or both spouses citing “unreasonable behaviour.” The other four legal grounds for divorce are adultery, desertion, two years separation with consent and five years separation without consent. A couple must have been married for 12 months or more before beginning divorce proceedings. It is possible for divorces to be granted without the parties ever having to attend court.


You may file a divorce petition on the ground of adultery. However, if your husband or wife denies the adultery, it is up to you to prove it. This can be difficult. According to legal advice service Compact Law, this is the reason why divorce petitions based on this ground do not always succeed.

Unreasonable Behaviour

If using this legal ground, you must cite examples of the unreasonable behaviour in the divorce petition, describing how the behaviour has affected you and made it impossible for you to carry on with the marriage. Adultery can be used as an example of unreasonable behaviour without the need to prove it. It is common for people to cite adultery in this way rather than rely on it as the only ground for divorce. Your husband or wife may also put in a petition if he or she does not agree with your allegations. In this situation, both parties can agree to get a divorce based on both petitions, known as "Cross Decrees."


If you have been separated for at least two years and your partner agrees to the divorce, you can file on the basis of "two years separation with consent." You need to show that at least two years have passed since you separated. The same rules apply if five years of separation have passed, except that you don't need your husband or wife's consent. If your husband or wife has left you and you have not had contact for at least two years, you are able to begin divorce proceedings without your spouse's consent. You must supply dates to be granted a divorce on any of these grounds.


When someone files for divorce, a "Statement of Arrangements" proposing arrangements for the custody of the children must also be submitted. The court is unlikely to interfere if both parties agree on the arrangements. Divorce Aid UK advises that parties are able to ask the court for help at any time. If you can't agree, a judge may request that you attend a hearing and/or mediation. The children may have to attend further meetings at a court welfare office. The Children's Act 1989 says the child's welfare is the most important thing to consider when deciding on issues of guardianship.


"Ancillary relief" is the term given to the process of deciding the issues surrounding the matrimonial property, for example your house, cars, shares and/or other financial assets. As pointed out by divorce specialists Terry & Co. Solicitors, these proceedings are distinct from the divorce itself. In the UK, courts have the last word in the division of all the matrimonial property, and in the past they have not hesitated to ignore prenuptial agreements, which have proven to be binding in countries such as the United States. In the UK, a court may divide up the matrimonial assets in any way it regards to be fair. Regardless of whose name a property is in, a court can order it to be transferred to the other party. You should always seek professional legal advice on these matters, even if you and your partner agree on who should have what.

Other Options

If you have not been married for 12 months or more but have separated and want a court order to settle any disputes over children or assets, you may obtain a "judicial separation." You need to show that one of the five grounds for divorce applies. A judicial separation means you technically remain married but do not have to live together. If your marriage is not valid, you can apply to have the marriage annulled. There are several situations where this applies, including if the marriage has not been consummated or if your partner was already married to somebody else. You must apply within a reasonable amount of time to annul a marriage, generally within three years.

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About the Author

From New Zealand and now freelancing in London, Alice Hudson began her writing career in 2004, specializing in health and fitness, lifestyle and personal finance. Her work has appear in the "Hawke's Bay Today" daily newspaper and "The Herald on Sunday." Hudson attained a Bachelor of Arts and diploma in journalism from the University of Canterbury.