Product Category Icon

Separation and Divorce: A Complete Guide

Ending a marriage can be a stressful experience. Ensure your interests are protected by learning about the steps you need to take to separate and divorce, and the documents you need to create to complete the process.

Category Featured Contract Icon

Step 1

Separation Agreement

A Separation Agreement is used by spouses to dictate their own separation terms. The agreement may specify shared and separate property and debts, as ...

Category Featured Contract Icon

Step 2

Last Will & Testament

A Last Will and Testament is an important legal document that allows an individual to appoint an executor and specify how they would like their assets...

Last updated December 20, 2022

Whether it's temporary or permanent, breaking up a marriage or civil partnership is tough. Besides being emotionally draining, navigating the legalities of separation and divorce can be highly confusing.

This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about separation and divorce in the United Kingdom. We explain the differences between separation and divorce and break down each step of ending a marriage.

By exploring your options and determining which path is right for you, you'll know which step to take next.

Separation versus divorce

Although both involve splitting up, separation and divorce are legally very different.

Despite living apart, separating leaves you legally married to your spouse while divorce does not. Therefore, you can't marry a new partner while separated. You and your spouse can separate without involving lawyers or a court, or you can pursue a court-approved legal separation.

A divorce terminates your marriage and changes your legal relationship status. Unlike separation, only a court can grant you a divorce. Once divorced, you are legally single and can enter a new marriage.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, legal separation involves only one judicial decree, whereas divorces involve two. In Scotland, divorce only involves one decree.

In England and Wales, divorces cannot be granted until after one year of marriage, whereas legal separations can be granted whenever. In Northern Ireland, divorces cannot be granted until after two years of marriage.

Some couples separate and eventually get back together, some separate permanently, and some separate as part of the divorce process.

Before separating or divorcing

Before separating or divorcing, it is important to understand which assets and responsibilities you and your spouse have to divide when splitting up. You must decide how you distribute property, money, and child care obligations.

It’s also important to note that if you are in the United Kingdom as a dependant on your partner’s UK visa or a family visa, or if you have a family permit, you will need to contact the Home Office to apply to stay in the UK if you separate or divorce your spouse.

Child arrangements and maintenance

If you and your spouse have children and are separating or divorcing, you must determine how you will distribute child care duties. It is best if you and your spouse can agree on how to look after your children because you can avoid arguing about the matter in court. To make arrangements for caring for your children, you and your spouse must decide:

  • Where the children will live
  • How much time they will spend with each parent
  • If one parent will give the other child maintenance (also known as child support)

Child maintenance is the payments that one parent makes to the other to help cover a child’s living costs when one parent does not live with the child. You must have a child maintenance arrangement if your child is under 16 (or under 20 if they are still in full-time education). Both parents are responsible for the costs of raising their children, even if they do not see them.

  • Child maintenance in England and Wales
  • Child maintenance in Northern Ireland
  • Child maintenance in Scotland

Spousal maintenance

Spousal maintenance is the payments that one spouse gives to their ex as part of their divorce. Usually, it is paid every month and lasts for a specific period.

Often, if one spouse has a much higher income than the other, the higher-earning spouse may have to provide financial support to the other to ensure they have enough to live and care for themselves. For example, sometimes one spouse leaves their career to stay at home with their children while the other works. In this case, if the marriage ends, the stay-at-home parent may be entitled to spousal maintenance.

The court sometimes orders the spouse with the higher income to make regular maintenance payments to the other.

Division of assets

When you divorce, you and your ex need to separate your assets and finances. This includes deciding how you’re going to divide your:

  • Pensions
  • Property
  • Savings
  • Investments

Matrimonial property includes assets that have been built up during the marriage. Usually, the greatest matrimonial assets are the home and pensions.

Generally, matrimonial assets are split between spouses. The way in which spouses separate their matrimonial assets varies greatly by the situation.

Separate property includes inheritances, gifts, and anything that you or your ex acquired before your marriage. Generally, spouses keep their separately owned property and it is not divided in the divorce.

You can usually avoid going to court hearings if you agree on how to split your money and property.

Separating from your partner

Separation means that you are living apart from your spouse but are still legally married. Although some people separate and never divorce, most people separate while they wait for a final divorce order or dissolution. A period of separation may not be required before your divorce depending on the reason for your divorce.

Regardless of whether you want to divorce your spouse, dissolve your civil partnership, or only separate from them, creating a Separation Agreement is the best place to start.

A Separation Agreement is a document that you and your spouse use to divide your shared assets and responsibilities when separating or pursuing a divorce. Depending on your circumstances, you may address any of the following issues in your Separation Agreement:

  • Child living arrangements
  • Child maintenance
  • Spousal maintenance
  • Division of debts
  • Division of property

Not all Separation Agreements are the same. Sharing children, owning a home, or having a Prenuptial Agreement with your spouse will affect the elements in your agreement. In addition, not all separations are the same. There are three types of separation: trial, permanent, and legal.

Types of separation

What is a trial separation?

A trial separation occurs when you and your spouse try spending time apart for a specific or open-ended amount of time.

When spouses begin a trial separation, they usually do not know whether they want to pursue a permanent end to their relationship. A trial separation can give you the time to determine what you truly want. You may reconcile, remain separated, or divorce or dissolve your civil partnership following a trial separation.

Generally, trial separations do not require a court's involvement, but creating a Separation Agreement can still be a good idea. If you and your spouse do not reconcile after a trial separation, the agreement acts as a record of your separation date, which can be helpful when pursuing a divorce or dissolution. You can also outline each of your obligations during the trial period.

What is permanent separation?

Permanent separation occurs when you and your spouse are separated but not divorced, with no intention of reconciling.

Often, permanent separation follows a trial period after spouses decide they do not want to get back together and are navigating the divorce or dissolution process. Or, if spouses have total clarity about ending their marriage, they may skip a trial period altogether and be permanently separated.

If you choose to separate permanently, you need a Separation Agreement to document the date and terms of your separation. Having this agreement will help determine who is responsible for certain debts and assets while you are separated. In addition, you can submit your Separation Agreement during divorce or dissolution proceedings to provide the court with an agreed-upon settlement that can help to simplify the legal process.

What is a legal separation?

A legal separation, also known as a judicial separation, is a court-approved alternative to divorce. To obtain the status of being legally separated, you need to complete a separation application (England and Wales) and send it to the court. The process of judicially separating varies in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

You may seek a legal separation because:

  • Your religion does not allow divorce
  • You have not been married or in a civil partnership for a full year yet
  • You are not emotionally ready to divorce or dissolve your civil partnership
  • You are in the separation period required to prove an irretrievable breakdown of your marriage (1-5 years, depending on your region and whether you and your ex both consent to divorce)

You and your spouse can make a joint application, or one of you can apply on your own. To file a joint application, you both must agree that you should get a legal separation. Also, you must agree on the arrangements for your children and the division of your money and property.

If you decide on these things together, you can usually avoid a court hearing. To help you determine and agree on the terms of your legal separation, consider creating a Separation Agreement.

After separating: Update or create your Will

When you go through major life events, you must rethink your estate plan and update the relevant estate planning documents.

Most spouses are the executors and beneficiaries of one another. Therefore, once you are separated, the first document you should update is your Last Will and Testament. Updating your current Will allows you to:

  • Appoint a new executor: If your spouse is the executor of your Will, you may feel inclined to appoint someone else that you trust, such as a sibling or adult child.
  • Revise your beneficiaries: If your spouse was a beneficiary or the sole beneficiary of your estate, you can remove them. A spouse can be removed as a beneficiary but if so, then the separation agreement should state that the spouse is giving up their inheritance rights. If it doesn't, the spouse may be able to make a claim on the estate for the portion of the estate that they are entitled to under the law.

Many people choose to make their children their new primary beneficiaries, but you can also choose to leave assets to friends, other family members, or charities.

Remember that if you pass away while you are separated, your spouse is still entitled to inherit from your estate regardless of whether or not you have a Will because you are still legally married. Nonetheless, you must update or create a Will that reflects your current wishes. If you are separated and die without leaving a valid will, a court will distribute your estate according to the rules of intestacy. For example, in England and Wales, if you are separated and do not have a Will, your spouse could be recognised as your main beneficiary under inheritance laws.

In addition to updating your Will, there are more documents to create and update during the separation and divorce process, such as your Power of Attorney, Advance Decision, and End-of-Life Plan.

Grounds for divorce

Grounds for divorce are the reasons why a court grants you and your ex-spouse a divorce. Grounds for divorce are governed by:

In the United Kingdom, you can file for divorce because your marriage has irretrievably broken down. In Scotland, you can also file for divorce because you or your spouse are applying for an interim gender recognition certificate. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, adultery, unreasonable behaviour, or a separation period can prove that a marriage has irretrievably broken down. Desertion is also proof that a marriage has irretrievably broken down in Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, it is not necessary to specify why your marriage has irretrievably broken down, though noting behaviours, such as abuse, relevant to the safety of yourself or your children, is a good idea so the court can make appropriate orders.


If your partner has engaged in sex outside of your marriage, then you may use adultery as the reason your marriage has irretrievably broken down.

Unreasonable behaviour

If you cannot bear to be married to your spouse because of their behaviour, you can use unreasonable behaviour as your grounds for divorce. Unreasonable behaviour includes:

  • Unruly behaviour, such as frequent drunkenness
  • Illegal behaviour, such as taking illicit drugs
  • Physical abuse
  • Mental abuse, such as threats, insults, and manipulation

Using unreasonable behaviour as grounds for divorce is a common choice for divorcing couples as it can apply to any behaviour that results in you no longer being able to live with your spouse.


If your spouse deserts you without your consent and without a good reason for a continuous period, you may use desertion as your grounds for divorce. In this case, you may not need their consent for the divorce to go through. In Northern Ireland, desertion means your spouse has abandoned you for at least two years.

Separation period

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, you can use a separation period as the grounds for your divorce if your spouse does not agree or consent to the divorce. These periods vary by region and the details for each region should be specified.

  • Scotland: With consent, spouses must be separated for one year. Without mutual consent, spouses must be separated for two years.
  • Northern Ireland: With consent, spouses must be separated for two years. Without mutual consent, spouses must be separated for five years.

The divorce process in the United Kingdom

If your marriage has broken down and you wish to legally end your marriage, you need a court to grant you a final divorce decree.

You may assume that getting a divorce has to be complex and expensive, involving endless meetings with your solicitor. However, if you and your ex can agree on the reasons for your divorce and the terms of your separation, you may be able to obtain a divorce without the need for expensive solicitors. Of course, many spouses still choose to hire solicitors or cannot agree and have to hire solicitors. Hiring a solicitor has benefits, as it gives you access to expert legal advice.

The processes and qualifications for divorce vary between England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

The divorce process in England and Wales

To be granted a divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership in England or Wales, you need to have been married for at least one year.

In England and Wales, complete the following steps when seeking a divorce.

  1. Start a divorce application. You can start the divorce process by making a divorce application to the court on the basis of the irretrievable breakdown of your marriage.
  2. The court sends your partner a copy of the divorce petition and the acknowledgement of service (AOS). Your partner has 14 days to complete and return the AOS to the court.
  3. Start the 20-week reflection period. This period allows an opportunity for you and your partner to agree on arrangements for the future, such as child arrangements and the division of your assets.
  4. Apply for the conditional order.
  5. The court reviews your application.
  6. The court grants the conditional order.
  7. Apply for a financial order.
  8. Apply for a final order.
  9. The court grants the final order.

The divorce process in Northern Ireland

To be granted a divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership in Northern Ireland, you need to have been married for at least two years.

During the divorce process in Northern Ireland, the spouse who makes the application is the petitioner. They can act on their own behalf or hire a solicitor. The other spouse or civil partner is the respondent. The divorce and dissolution process is as follows:

  1. Lodge a petition in the Matrimonial Office. You must pay £261 to lodge a petition in court. You need to lodge documents with the petition in the Matrimonial Office including:
    • Your marriage or civil partnership certificate
    • An acknowledgement of service form
    • Birth certificate for a child under 18
    • Agreements you wish to be made a rule of the court (e.g., Separation Agreement)
    • Previous court orders about your marriage or civil partnership
  2. Serve the petition. After the papers have been processed with the Matrimonial Office, the court will send you a certified copy of the petition. You can then serve your ex-partner with the petition.
  3. Your case is listed before the court. The court will tell you the date of the court listing. If your ex-partner defends the petition, the case will be heard in the High Court. The fees for a court date are £327.00 in the County Court and £392.00 in the High Court.
  4. Your ex-spouse consents or defends the petition. If the respondent consents to the petition, you have to verify the information in your petition. If they defend the petition, you might need to give evidence and be cross-examined by the respondent’s legal representative. In this case, you may need a solicitor.
  5. A judge grants a decree nisi or conditional order if they are satisfied with the evidence the marriage or civil partnership has broken down irretrievably. A judge can make orders about your and your ex-partner’s finances, maintenance payments, and property.
  6. Apply for a decree absolute. At least six weeks and one day after the decree nisi or conditional order is granted, you can apply to make the decree absolute or the conditional order final. The fee is £98.00 for a decree absolute or conditional order.
  7. The marriage or civil partnership formally ends when the decree absolute is granted or the conditional order is made final. When the decree absolute or conditional order made final is granted, you and your former spouse or civil partner will get a copy.

The divorce process in Scotland

In Scotland, there are two ways to apply for divorce and dissolution of civil partnership: the do-it-yourself procedure or the ordinary procedure.

Do-it-yourself procedure

If you and your spouse have been separated for one year, consent to the divorce, do not have any children under 16 years old, and agree on how to divide your money and property, you can use the do-it-yourself divorce procedure. You can keep the costs of your divorce low because you may not need to hire a solicitor.

You can apply to the Sheriff Court for a DIY divorce using the appropriate form and pay the fee. The forms are available to download from the Scottish Courts website.

Ordinary procedure

If you and your spouse do not meet all the requirements for Scotland’s simplified, do-it-yourself divorce procedure, you will have to use the ordinary procedure. This method is much more complex and generally requires both partners to hire solicitors to help with the process.

As such, divorces via the ordinary procedure will generally be more costly and take longer than divorces done via the simplified procedure.

With the ordinary procedure, creating a Separation Agreement can still be a good idea. Agreeing on the division of assets and debts, child arrangements and maintenance, and any spousal maintenance before going to court will help save time and money.