Thinking about divorcing? A beginners' guide

Unfortunately, most of us misunderstand how separating and divorce works, which causes extra stress and difficulty. If you are just beginning to think about divorce there are a few things about the process that are really useful to understand at the outset. This short guide is the place to start.
Mum getting things sorted out
Important things to understand from the start

Where to go next

If you read this short guide and decide you need to know more, the next guide in the series helps you to work out where you stand when it comes to the legal side of divorce

  • It takes ages. It’s best to accept that you will have quite a few months of not really knowing what the future will look like. This is very stressful, particularly if you have kids. But there’s often no alternative, and banging your head against a brick wall increases the stress, rather reduces it.
  • Chances are it will take two or three stages - agreeing to separate, moving out and coming up with a temporary plan, and then divorce. Chances are you won't both be at the same stage emotionally. It will take time for each of you to be ready for the next stage before it can happen. 
  • It’s not one process, but three. People think of divorce as ending the marriage, dealing with issues like how to divide the home and money or property, and sorting arrangements for the children (sometimes people call this custody, contact and residence but these are the old names) all in one go. But these are really three different processes, dealt with separately, but often going on at the same time. 
  • If you have children, the first thing you will want to get clear in your head is how you will arrange things for them, in the short and the long-term. We have another guide that shows you how to agree where your children will live and when they will see their other parent to help guide you through.
  • Life is not like American TV.  Few people can afford, financially or emotionally, to fight a long legal battle. Some people think they need to get solicitors involved right away or go to court in order to ‘protect themselves’ and ‘get what they are entitled to’, but this is a costly and stressful misunderstanding of the system. It’s best to agree as much as you can, either on your own, using family mediation, or (if you can afford them) having solicitors negotiate for you. Going to court is very much a last resort. In fact most people can’t go to court about a family matter without showing that they have explored family mediation first.

  • Family mediation aims to help you agree how you will live (and parent) apart. You can use it to help you agree how you will divorce, divide money or property, and/or how you will both continue to care for your children. Another reason to try to come to agreements rather than go to court is the time it takes to get a case through teh system - there is a huge backlog of cases so going to court will likely take longer than ever before. We have another guide to help you understand what family mediation involves. 
  • You’re very unlikely to have to go to a court hearing. If you can come to agreements about children, money and property, it all happens on paper (or online), which is good because going to an actual court hearing is more expensive and not a fun day out. 
  • 'No fault’ divorce became law in 2022. You no longer need to find a reason to blame each other to get divorced. You can apply online or use a paper application form
  • There are no rewards for good behaviour or punishments for bad. What happens to the money isn’t affected by who had an affair, or who did what hurtful thing.  'Past behaviour' is listed as one of the criteria for deciding how money is divided, but generally speaking, it doesn't work like that. It only counts if it has been really, really bad or if someone is trying to hide money and assets.
  • There are no set formulas for working out who gets what. You need to try and agree what happens with your finances after the divorce, for example the family home and any savings (on your own or with the help of a mediator or solicitor). But generally speaking, it's not about who put what in, but about what any children and you both need for the future. If you do take it to a court hearing, that is what the court will look at.

This is just one of our resources to help you manage your separation and divorce and save you money.

For more advice, see our Help to deal with family problems  page where you can find our survival guides to making residence and contact arrangements for the children as part of divorce or separation, and how to divide your money and property when you get divorced which aim to help you get everything sorted without having to go to court. We also have help to get your head around the legal side of divorce and a guide that shows you how to get divorced without needing a lawyer. We also have a series of step-by-step guides and films if you do have to go to court to get a fair financial divorce settlement or have to go to court about custody and contact arrangements for the children. And you also have the opportunity to access low-cost legal advice from a family solicitor via our Affordable Advice panel at the most crucial points in the process. 

April 2024

About this guide

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The information in this guide applies to England and Wales.

The law is complicated. We have simplified things in this short guide. Please don’t rely on this guide as a complete statement of the law. We recommend you try and get advice from the sources we have suggested.


Law for Life would like to thank all those who provided advice and feedback on this guide.

April 2023 

This guide was updated with thanks to funding from Help Accessing Legal Support (HALS).

October 2022

This guide was updated with thanks to funding from Help Accessing Legal Support (HALS).

5 Reviews

So good

Love Advicenow. So good at understanding what people don't know know and what they need to know and then explaining it well.

on the 13 / 12 / 2023

separated for 6 years and a half

Hi both me and my husband are other nationalities than British. I currently live in UK and either me or my children have not had any contact with my husband/father that currently live in another European country for the last 6 years and a half. I am raising my daughters every since (2) he left been the only provider and I am now ready to start the divorce process and I appreciate any advice.

on the 13 / 10 / 2023

Confused with Separation and Divorce process

HI, I was married outside UK, and never registered my marriage in UK. my wife came to UK on spouse visa. Does this mean we still have to go through a legal court process to divorce her. Is our marriage automatically registered in UK on spouse visa.

Thank you

on the 23 / 08 / 2023

This was mainly news to me

Glad i followed the link from Facebook as this was useful

on the 14 / 01 / 2020

Good advice. The in-depth

Good advice. The in-depth guides linked to above are great. I tell my clients to read them all the time.

on the 04 / 12 / 2019

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