Contested and Uncontested Divorce Explained

What does it mean to contest a divorce, and why might someone choose to take this step? If your spouse has filed for divorce and you do not agree with their reasons for divorce, you have the option to contest it. However, contesting can lead to a longer, more expensive and more complicated divorce process. Here is what you need to know when considering whether or not to contest a divorce.

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What is the difference between a contested and an uncontested divorce?

There are two parties involved in a divorce: the ‘petitioner’, who initiates the divorce proceedings, and the ‘respondent’. After the petitioner files for divorce, the respondent receives an Acknowledgement of Service form from the court. This form contains a number of questions, including whether or not they wish to contest, or ‘defend’, the divorce.

In the majority of cases, the respondent will answer ‘no’ to this question, resulting in an uncontested divorce. This is normally a straightforward procedure: it takes about six months to go through, depending on how busy the court is and how quickly the couple submits the relevant paperwork. It does not usually involve making an appearance in court.

In rarer cases, the respondent will answer ‘yes’ on the Acknowledgement of Service, meaning that they intend to contest the divorce. A contested divorce is a much lengthier and more costly proceeding than an uncontested one. Usually the divorcing couple will have to attend two hearings in court. Contesting a divorce also involves additional fees..

Even if the respondent does answer ‘yes’, contesting a divorce is unlikely to stop it from going through. If the petitioner wants a legal separation, only in very rare circumstances would defending a divorce prevent it from happening.

It is also important to note that the decision over whether or not to contest a divorce has no effect on a settlement agreement. It doesn’t determine decisions over how your assets will be divided, or any arrangements in place for the children. It simply ends the marriage.

Why contest a divorce?

Simply put, a respondent will contest a divorce if they do not agree with the reasons for divorce stated in the petition.

To apply for a divorce in England and Wales, the petitioner must prove to the court that their marriage has irretrievably broken down. This involves choosing one of five reasons, or ‘facts’, from the following: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion (for a minimum of two years), two years separation (with consent), or five years separation (no consent required).

If, for example, a petitioner files for divorce based on the fact of adultery, the respondent may not agree that this was the reason the marriage broke down. They might deny that the adultery took place, or believe that that the relationship is reconcilable. These would all be reasons for contesting the divorce.

There are additional reasons why a respondent might choose to contest. One is that it can be a way to delay proceedings in court. If a petitioner decides to divorce on impulse and without fully considering the implications of their decision, the respondent may contest it – often temporarily – so that the initiating partner has more time to reflect on, and perhaps reconsider, their choice.

Another common reason for contesting a divorce is when the petition includes allegations that are serious and untrue. This applies particularly when these allegations might affect a financial settlement or child arrangements.

Someone might also contest a divorce in order to submit a cross-petition. A cross-petition is when the respondent applies for a divorce in addition to the one that the petitioner has already filed. For example, the petitioner may file based on unreasonable behaviour, but the respondent might instead believe that the marriage broke down because of adultery, and cross-petition on that basis.

Can I disagree with a petition without contesting the divorce?

Even if a respondent disagrees with the ‘fact’ stated on the petition, they can avoid contesting in two ways. The first is by requesting to amend the petition. This requires a further court fee, but avoids the costly and time-consuming process of having to contest the divorce.

The second is for the respondent to state in their answer to the Acknowledgment of Service form that while they do not wish to contest the divorce, they do not accept the allegations in the petition. This statement would be visible to a judge should the case go to court, but the divorce would remain uncontested.

What happens when a divorce is contested?

The respondent has a month (7 days plus 21 days after the original petition has been served, excluding the day of the service) from the date that the Acknowledgement of Service is returned to court to contest the divorce.

In their answer, the respondent must provide their reasons for contesting. The judge will then consider evidence from both parties in court before deciding whether the divorce should go through.

What happens if there is no answer?

If the respondent does not provide an answer within a month of receiving their Acknowledgement of Service, the divorce will proceed as if it has not been contested.

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