Divorce or dissolution process

Divorce or dissolution process

Contents

The forms needed during the process

All divorces or dissolution of civil partnerships must start by way of a petition (form M1).

A petition is a legal document that sets out a number of factual issues about the marriage or civil partnership, the parties, their children and also the facts you are relying on for your petition. The petition must state if you are bringing the case in the High Court or County Court. It must be dated and signed. If you are seeking any financial relief, or costs from the respondent for your divorce or dissolution then this must also be detailed in the 'prayer' section of the petition.

The 'prayer' is the section of the petition which states what it is you are asking the court to decide. If you do not wish to seek any financial relief (for example, the costs of the proceedings, or any form of ancillary relief such as lump sum, property adjustment or pension orders) then the 'prayer' will simply ask for the marriage to be dissolved. The petition must be completed in typescript. The other forms discussed below can be completed in either typescript or handwritten.

The other forms you need to send to court with your petition, are as follows:

Form M4 – Statement of Arrangements for Children

This form must be sent to court if there are any children of the family under 16. If there is a child aged over 16 and under 18 that is still in full time education, then the form must also be lodged. The child doesn't necessarily have to be a biological child, and can be a child that was treated as a child of the family. This form details the living arrangements for any child of the family, any health or educational needs they have, their contact/ residence arrangements with you and your spouse/civil partner and if child maintenance is paid and agreed for them.

'Children of the family' is a legal term and includes:

  • Any child of both you and your spouse or civil partner.
  • Any child who is the biological, adopted or legal child of either of you or your spouse or civil partner, but has been treated as a child of the family by the other one of you.
  • Any child who is not the biological, adopted or legal child of either of you, but has been treated by you both as a child of the family.

Note that a foster child cannot be a child of the family.

Form M5 (M5A if civil partnership dissolution)– Notice of Proceedings

This form must always be completed. It accompanies your petition when served upon the respondent parties (i.e. your spouse or civil partner, and for divorce anyone that is named as a co-respondent on the grounds of adultery). It explains to the respondent how they complete the M6 or M6A acknowledgement.

Form M6 (M6A if civil partnership dissolution)– Acknowledgment of Service

This form needs to be completed with the title to the proceedings and the respondent's address for service. The bulk of the form is left blank as it is for completion by the respondent. The M5 or M5A will help them answer the questions, or they may wish to seek legal advice on completing the form. Crucially, they must confirm if they are consenting to the divorce or if they wish to contest the petition. If they contest they must send to court an answer to the petition setting out their defence and serve a copy of this on you.

Once the above forms are completed they should be sent to the Matrimonial Office (Royal Courts of Justice, Chichester Street, Belfast, BT1 3JF) with the following:

(a) The court fee made payable to NIC&TS.

(b) Your marriage certificate or civil partnership certificate (if this is not in English then a translated copy certified by a notary public or authenticated by affidavit must also be sent).

(c) If you are completing an M4, the long form birth certificates for any child referred to in the M4.

(d) You must send two copies of the forms. If you are proceeding on the grounds of adultery and have named a co-respondent then you will need to send three copies of the petition, M5/5A and M6/6A. If a form M4 is needed then you are not required to provide an additional copy of it as it shouldn't be sent to the co-respondent.

(e) Completed checklist. There is a checklist for each type of petition which can be found on the Court Service website.

Once received, the office will process the documents (which is likely to take a few weeks) and return them to you for service upon the respondent and any co-respondent named.

You must then send the documents to the respondent (and co-respondent, if any) by either ordinary first class post, recorded delivery or by using a process server. This is known as 'serving' the proceedings.

All the above forms can be found on the Northern Ireland Court Service website.

After service upon the respondent and co-respondent

The respondent (and any co-respondent named) must return the M6 or M6A completed form to the Matrimonial Office within 14 days of service upon them.

Their response will notify the court of whether they are going to do any of the following:

  • Defend the petition
  • Make a claim for financial relief (only the respondent)
  • Seek an order in relation to any children (only the respondent)
  • Object to any costs sought

If the respondent fails to return the M6 or M6A then you can apply to the Master at the High Court to have service deemed good. This is done by way of lodging a summons and affidavit. All reasonable efforts must have been made to show effective service. The Master will then consider the application and make what orders they deem fit.

Undefended petitions

If the respondent consents to divorce, the court office will write to you and ask you to lodge a 'certificate of readiness' in form M8, along with the necessary court fee.

The court office will schedule a hearing date once they receive the certificate of readiness. You will receive written notice of this date.

At the hearing

The respondent and any co-respondent will not be present at the hearing of an undefended divorce. It will be dealt with in either a closed court or by the judge in chambers (i.e. the judge's office). It is a relatively straight forward hearing which normally lasts around 10 minutes.

You will be asked at the outset if you are happy to take an oath, or if you would rather make an affirmation (promise) to the court. The court clerk will take you through your oath or affirmation and at the end you will be asked to state your full name to the court.

The judge will already have sight of your divorce papers. The judge will ask you some questions about your divorce and the grounds you have stated. If there are children, the judge will ask you about the arrangements for the children. The judge will need to be satisfied that adequate arrangements are in place for any children of the family. If not, the judge may adjourn your hearing to allow arrangements to be put into place.

There are two documents that you will have to identify as part of the evidence procedure. The court clerk will show you your marriage or civil partnership certificate and ask you to identify the document. You will then be shown the M6 or M6A acknowledgment of service that your spouse or civil partner has signed and asked to identify their signature.

At the end of the hearing, if the judge is satisfied the grounds have been met, you will be granted a 'Decree Nisi'. This is the first stage of your divorce.

The 'Decree Absolute'

You must then wait six weeks and one day before applying for your 'decree absolute'. The application is made in Form 10 together with the court fee. This form can be found on the Northern Ireland Court Service website.

It is not until your decree absolute is granted that your marriage or civil partnership is dissolved and your divorce/dissolution finalised. You will need to keep your decree absolute safe as you are likely to be asked for it to prove your divorce/dissolution when, for example, you are applying for benefits, a new passport or getting remarried/entering a new civil partnership.

It is also a good idea to update or make a will after divorce or dissolution.

Defended petition

If the respondent defends your petition then they must indicate so when returning the M6/M6A, and they must lodge an answer to petition within 35 days of being served. They may decide to cross- petition. This most commonly would be done if you alleged they behaved unreasonably. They may cross petition alleging it was in fact you that behaved unreasonably. A defended divorce or dissolution is complicated and so it's a good idea to get a solicitor to represent you. It will be heard in the High Court, so if you initially brought your application in the County Court it will now be transferred to the High Court.

Costs

The cost of your divorce/dissolution will depend on if you issued in the High Court or County Court. It is more expensive to lodge a 'certificate of readiness' in the High Court. A list of the court fees can be found on the Northern Ireland Court Service website.

The court decides who must pay the costs of the action, unless you both agree how to meet the legal costs.

The judge will normally order the respondent to pay the cost if you proceed on one of the following grounds: adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. These three grounds are considered to be fault-based grounds. If you proceed on the two-year ground with consent, the court is likely to award half of the costs against the respondent. If you proceed on the five-year ground, then the petitioning party is likely to be ordered to pay the full costs.

If you are in receipt of income support or other income-related benefits, or if you are on a low income then you may be entitled to Legal Aid to apply for divorce or dissolution. If you believe you fall into this category, you should consult a solicitor to get advice on your entitlement and assistance to apply for legal aid. If legal aid is granted, you may have to pay a contribution. This is paid direct to the Legal Services Agency, normally by instalments over a 12-month period. At the end of proceedings Legal Services Agency will pay your legal fees. You may be required to repay further monies to Legal Services Agency if you are granted a lump sum or any property in your divorce.

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