For family lawyers, a welcome side effect of the Covid pandemic is that it has expedited the digitisation of the divorce process. Divorces are now routinely applied for, processed and completed entirely online and since 13 September 2021, it has been mandatory for lawyers to use the online application portal.
The new online system has also sped up processing times. Old paper applications were taking several weeks (and sometimes months) to be reviewed and processed whereas now applications are dealt with in days or weeks. In particular, Decree Absolute applications (the final stage in the process and the application which legally ends your marriage) are being processed incredibly quickly, usually within 24 hours and often on the same day, which can catch the applicant off guard as they may not be emotionally prepared for the dissolution of their marriage to be finalised quite so abruptly.
As family lawyers, we see a broad spectrum of reactions from clients reaching this milestone in what has often been a lengthy and emotional process and we are increasingly having to ensure that we factor this in to our considerations when applying for Decree Absolute. An application that coincides with another key date in the parties’ lives, like a child’s birthday, may be an unwelcome reminder of the divorce process in years to come. Perhaps more significantly, a short timeframe for finalising the divorce may catch separating couples off guard if they haven’t got their financial affairs in order.
The percentage of divorcing couples who obtain a financial remedy order has been steadily decreasing since 2012. However, sorting out financial matters and having a documented agreement in a court order is essential, not only to ensure that each party’s needs are met but also to protect against future claims from a former spouse. Finalising the divorce may also terminate certain rights for a surviving former spouse in the event of the other’s death prior to a financial agreement being reached, particularly in relation to pensions and inheritance.
Unless a party’s financial claims have been dismissed in a court order, the court retains the power to make financial orders after a divorce and there are well-documented cases where former spouses have been able to make successful financial claims many years, and in some instances decades, after the marriage has ended. Even if spouses are agreed that there will be no transfer of assets or maintenance payments made a consent order dismissing the parties’ claims should be obtained to protect against the risk of future claims.
Whatever your circumstances, it is always advisable to speak to an experienced family law solicitor prior to finalising your divorce.
Note: Under the new no-fault divorce provisions due to be implemented in April 2022 the Decree Absolute will be known as the Final Order.