The difference between contested and uncontested divorce

11 May 2021

An uncontested divorce is a divorce which is not being defended or disputed. A contested divorce is more complicated, it costs much more, takes longer, and the divorcing couple usually have to attend two court hearings.

In autumn 2021, divorce law in England and Wales is being changed, and it will no longer be possible to contest a divorce. In the meantime though, it is possible to contest a divorce. We explain how it works.

When thinking about getting divorced, some of the common worries include whether it will be a straightforward process and how much the divorce will cost. The answer to this very much depends on what the other person decides to do when they receive the divorce papers from the court – will your ex contest the divorce, or will they agree to getting divorced?

Completing the acknowledgment of service

The person who starts divorce proceedings in England or Wales is called the petitioner, because he/she must send a divorce petition to the court. The court will then send a copy to the other person, known as the respondent. With this the court will also send an acknowledgment of service form for the respondent to complete.

One of the questions the respondent is asked on this form is whether he/she intends to defend the divorce proceedings. In the majority of divorce cases, the respondent will answer ‘no’ to this question, meaning that the divorce proceedings are uncontested. However, there are rare occasions when the respondent will answer ‘yes’ and then the divorce proceedings become contested.

What is an uncontested divorce?

An uncontested divorce is a divorce that is not being defended by the respondent. It is usually a relatively straightforward process and can be dealt with by the court on paper, so there will be no need to attend court.

The process can usually be completed in a few months, depending on how quickly both parties send the relevant paperwork to the court, and how busy the court is.

If the divorce is not going to be contested we offer fixed fee divorce, plus court fees. This provides you with a Divorce Solicitor to take you through the usual steps to end your marriage.

What is a contested divorce?

A contested divorce is a more complicated procedure and will involve the divorcing couple having to attend court hearings (usually two).

If the respondent wants to defend the divorce, they will then have a further month to submit their answer (which is similar to a statement). The month starts from the date the acknowledgment of service is returned to the court.

The purpose of the ‘answer’ is to outline their reasons for defending the divorce. People can choose to defend a divorce for many reasons. For example, it may be that they do not agree that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, or that they don’t agree with ‘the fact’ the petitioner has specified in the divorce petition. When you start divorce proceedings, you have to specify one of five reasons for the divorce which are adultery, 2 or 5 years' separation, desertion and unreasonable behaviour. For complete details see grounds for divorce.

The court will want both people to give evidence. Ultimately a Judge will decide whether the person who started the divorce (the petitioner) is entitled to the divorce, based on the evidence given.

It is very uncommon for a divorce to be contested and even if it is, it is often difficult to successfully defend the divorce and persuade the court not to allow it to go through. If a divorce is contested and the respondent is unsuccessful, it is usual for the court to make an order which says the respondent must pay the petitioner’s costs.

What if the respondent does not file an answer?

If the respondent has indicated in their acknowledgement of service that they want to defent the divorce, they have 1 month to then file their answer. If they haven't filed their answer in this time, the petitioner can then continue through the divorce process and it will be dealt with as if it is uncontested.

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