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Ways to end your marriage

This advice applies to Northern Ireland

There are several ways you can end your marriage. If you know you’re ready to end it permanently, you should get a divorce.

If you’re not sure you’re ready to divorce or you’ve been married for less than 2 years, the best thing is to get a legal separation.

You can get your marriage annulled if it isn’t legally valid, for example you were forced into it or one of you was under 16.

If your partner makes you feel anxious or threatened, you should get help.

Don’t try to agree anything about your separation without speaking to someone first. 

You can contact the Domestic and Sexual Abuse helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 802 1414.

If you’re unsure about what to do next, contact your nearest Citizens Advice.

Before you end your marriage, you'll also need to decide:

Getting a divorce

You should get a divorce if you think you’ll want to marry again in the future.

It costs £550 (£220 in Northern Ireland) to start getting divorced. You pay this when you send your divorce form ('petition').

There will be other costs to set a court hearing date. Currently the fees are £275 for the county court and £330 for the high court.

Usually you'll go to a county court. However, if there is a high court closer to you or if there is disagreement between you and your ex-partner, you’ll go to the high court instead.

You can find your nearest court on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

You’ll need to show your marriage has ‘irretrievably broken down’. This means there’s no way you can work through your problems.

You do this by choosing one of 5 reasons - also known as ‘facts’ or ‘grounds for divorce’.

You and your partner should try to agree on one of these facts:

  • one of you has cheated - also known as committing adultery

  • unreasonable behaviour

  • your partner has left you - also known as ‘desertion’ - this includes if you’ve lived with your ex-partner for 6 months in the last 2 years

  • you’ve lived apart for at least 2 years and you both agree to the divorce

  • you’ve lived apart for at least 5 years - it doesn’t matter if your partner doesn’t agree to the divorce

If you've been married for less than 2 years, you can only apply for a legal separation.

You can’t usually use these facts for divorce against your partner when it comes to sorting out money or contact with your children.

It’s not always obvious which reason to choose. There are some things you might need to know first.

If your reason is adultery

Adultery has to be sexual and with a member of the opposite sex, even if you’re in a same-sex marriage.

If adultery is your reason for wanting a divorce you have to apply within 6 months of when you first found out about it.

It doesn’t matter how long ago the adultery happened or whether it’s still happening. You’ll have to prove it happened. This can be very hard to prove unless your ex-partner admits to the adultery. If they won’t admit to it, it might be easier to prove that your ex-partner is having an inappropriate relationship with someone of the opposite sex. This would be ‘unreasonable behaviour’.  

You’ll also have to prove you didn’t live together for more than 6 months after finding out.

If you want to get divorced based on adultery, it's best to get legal advice.  

For example, a solicitor can advise you on whether to name the person your ex-partner had an affair with. If you do name them, they'll have to get the forms and respond to them. So your divorce might take longer and cost more.

Find out the next steps in getting divorced if you decide you want to go ahead. 

If your reason is unreasonable behaviour 

Unreasonable behaviour could include things like domestic abuse or committing a criminal offence. It could also mean less obvious things, for example if you feel excluded from your partner’s social life or think they’re too close to someone of the opposite sex.

You can’t use unreasonable behaviour as a reason if you’re bored with your partner or no longer in love with them. You’ll need to give a reason you feel they’re being unreasonable that is specific and based on something they have done or are doing.

Find out the next steps in getting divorced if you decide you want to go ahead.

If your reason is desertion

You can use desertion as a reason if your partner left your home at least 2 years ago with the aim of ending your relationship.

You’ll need to prove that your partner left without any good reason. If you can’t do that, it might be easier to use unreasonable behaviour or say you’ve lived apart for 2 years.   

Find out the next steps in getting divorced if you decide you want to go ahead.

If you’ve lived apart for at least 2 years and both agree to divorce 

You’ll need to agree in writing that you and your partner have lived separate lives for at least 2 years.

You don’t need to have lived in 2 different homes, but it can be very difficult to prove you’ve lived separate lives if one of you hasn’t moved out.

If you still live together you shouldn’t share anything.  For example a bedroom, bank accounts or meals.

If you don’t think you’ve been living totally separate lives - for example because you still do things together - you shouldn’t use this reason to get divorced.

You should try and separate your lives - for example by moving out and spending less time together, even if you’re friends. Or, you can choose another reason.

Don’t be tempted to say you’ve been living separate lives when you haven’t - your divorce might not go through.

Find out the next steps in getting divorced if you decide you want to go ahead.

If you’ve lived apart for at least 5 years and your partner doesn’t agree to the divorce

You won’t need your ex-partner’s agreement to get a divorce if you’ve lived apart for 5 years.

Find out the next steps in getting divorced if you decide you want to go ahead.

You can get a legal separation (also known as ‘judicial separation’) if:

  • you’ve been married less than 2 years

  • you don’t feel ready to get divorced

  • you don’t want a divorce because your religion disagrees with it

You’ll need to fill in a form ('petition') to apply for legal separation. Find the form and read more about legal separation on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Services website. 

The fees for a legal separation are the same as divorce.

Starting to apply for a legal separation costs £220. You pay this when you send your legal separation form ('petition') to the court.

There will be other costs to set a court hearing date. Currently the fees are £275 for the county court and £330 for the high court.

Usually you'll go to a county court. However, if there is a high court closer to you or if there is disagreement between you and your ex-partner, you’ll go to the high court instead.

You can find your nearest court on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

A legal separation doesn’t stop you from getting divorced at a later date - you’ll have to pay the divorce fees.

You don’t have to be divorced to make decisions about housing, money or your children. 

You can get help through a relationship counselling service such as Relate if you’re having relationship difficulties but aren’t ready to separate. Find your nearest Relate centre on the Relate website.

Annulling your marriage

An annulment ends a marriage that isn’t legal in the UK.

You can get your marriage annulled if:

  • one of you was already married or in a civil partnership

  • you didn’t properly agree to the marriage - for example, you were drunk or forced into it

  • you haven’t had sex with your partner since you got married - this doesn’t apply to same-sex couples

You can find all the reasons for annulling a marriage on page 2 of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service nullity petition checklist.

Annulling your marriage costs £220 and takes a few months to complete.

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