Adultery & Divorce in the UK


Adultery is one of the five main grounds for divorce in England and Wales.

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour
  • Desertion
  • 2 years separation with consent
  • 5 years separation (no consent required)

Adultery and unreasonable behaviour are the only two grounds for immediate divorce; there are long procedural delays involved when divorce petitions are presented on the basis of the other three grounds for divorce: desertion for at minimum of two years, separation with consent for two years or separation without consent for five years.

A divorce can be granted if it is proven that one partner in a marriage has had an affair and committed adultery, defined as having had sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex other than their spouse, and if the spouse finds it intolerable for the marriage to continue.

  • For a divorce to be granted on these grounds, the divorce petition must be filed within six months of the adulterous affair having taken place or within six months of the most recent act of adultery if it has been committed on more than one occasion.
  • If the petition is not filed within the time period, the spouse is regarded as having accepted the adulterous affair.
  • The 6 months is not applicable if they have already separated.
Incidentally, adultery involves sexual relations between one party to the marriage and an outside party of the opposite sex. If the sexual relationship is with a member of the same sex or if the relationship is not sexual that is not adultery. The appropriate ground on a divorce petition in such cases would be “unreasonable behaviour”.

When applying for divorce on grounds of adultery, it is necessary to provide the courts with as much evidence as possible about the alleged adulterous affair, such as places and dates. If the partner who has had the affair or affairs does not contest the divorce, then it will usually be granted with little difficulty. However, if the divorce is contested, detailed evidence will be required to satisfy the courts that the affair actually occurred, and the process may be lengthy and expensive.

It is not necessary to name the ‘co-respondent’ – the person with whom the adulterous affair took place – and many lawyers advise against doing so as it may cause unnecessary delay and additional expense if the co-respondent contests the petition. There is often little reason for a co-respondent to cooperate, particularly as they may be ordered to pay a portion of the court costs if a divorce is granted.

The person that commits the adulterous affair cannot petition for a divorce themselves, it is only their spouse who can submit the application. However, in some cases where the adulterous partner wishes to remarry, they have cited the “unreasonable behaviour’’ of their spouse as grounds for divorce. It is then up to the courts to decide whether there is sufficient evidence of unreasonable behaviour.

Unmarried Couples

Contrary to popular opinion there is no such thing as a common law husband or wife. Unmarried couples have different legal rights and responsibilities in relation to property, finances and children to married couples.

For unmarried couples with kids: A mother automatically has parental responsibility for their children. That means they have certain rights to determine where the child lives, which schools they attend and how, when and if they access medical treatment.


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