Family law

It is a sad fact that many marriages in the UK now end in divorce or separation. At CMG Cunningham Dickey Solicitors Belfast and Bangor our Matrimonial Department offers advice and support on all issues surrounding the breakdown of a marriage or relationship. We are committed to providing practical advice in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

Our solicitors are also fully trained to offer family mediation.

Our solicitors are sensitive to your needs and understand you will have to make decisions - often difficult ones - that will affect the rest of your life. We appreciate that you may be uncertain about the future, worried about finances, and concerned about your home and your children. Our aim is to support and guide you through a separation or divorce as delicately as possible, explaining carefully the options open to you and the implications at each stage of the process.


  • What do we need?

    A. You have to show the court that your marriage has broken down irretrievably and that one or both of you feel that you cannot stay married to each other.

    You can do this by proving one of five facts:
    1 Your husband or wife has committed adultery and you find it intolerable to live with them.
    2 Your husband or wife has behaved in such away that you cannot reasonably be expected to live with him or her.
    3 You have lived separately for more than two years and your husband or wife consents to a divorce.
    You can have periods of living together as long as they do not add up to more than six months and you have been apart for at least two years.
    4 Your husband or wife deserted you for a period of more than two years.
    This means leaving your husband or wife without his or her agreement and without good reason.
    5 You have lived separately for more than five years.

  • How long does it take?

    A. In a straight-forward case where both parties agree the grounds for divorce, complete and return paperwork quickly a case takes around 16 weeks. Neither party has to appear in court.

  • Can I start a divorce?

    A. Yes. If you have been married for more than two years and can demonstrate grounds for divorce.

  • Do I appear in court?

    A. In the case of an uncontested divorce you will not be required to appear in court.

    A court appearance will only be necessary in the following circumstances:

    • You cannot agree a financial settlement and the case goes to a hearing.
    • You cannot agree the arrangements for looking after your children.

  • Separation?

    A. If you have decided to separate, but do not want to consider a divorce for the time being, a Separation Agreement is strongly recommended.

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There is no such thing as 'legal separation'. You are either living together or you are not.
For some people simply living apart may be better than divorcing. Financially there can also be advantages in not divorcing, especially if one of you dies or in respect of pensions. There are also tax differences to take into account.
In separation cases you do not have a court to help you sort out the issues that arise.
When the finances cannot be sorted because one person will not give any details or when basic issues cannot be resolved, some form of legal help is required

An increasing number of couples prefer to sort things out constructively without running up legal bills. However we do recommend that each person finds out what the legal position is first. Otherwise it easy to think things are sorted when in fact they are either unfair or impractical.
When the financial or other issues are sorted out, it is possible to have a separation agreement that sets out in writing what has been agreed.
If you want to have some formal recognition that you are living apart, or if you need a court to help sort out finances and you do not want a divorce then a judicial separation is a possibility.

Judicial separation

Although not very often used, Judicial Separation is a halfway house that falls short of a divorce but still involves the courts in recognising a formal decree that a couple are living apart.

• The marriage still exists, which may be important if there are pension rights that might otherwise not be replaced.
• This option may be preferable because of strong personal or religious views about ending the marriage.
• The main advantage over the separation agreement or deed is that the court is involved and can therefore sort out issues about money or children.
• If a husband or wife is reluctant to hand over details of finances then it is possible to issue proceedings and force disclosure through the courts as in a divorce.

• The same procedures apply (or nearly) as in a divorce, therefore you have to prove the same facts.
• The costs are likely to be similar.
• If you do not want the marriage to be ended formally, there is a danger that these procedures might be amended or changed into divorce proceedings by your spouse.

Separation agreements

It is usually helpful to set out what has been discussed and agreed in writing.

This type of document is usually called a Separation Agreement or deed of Separation.
It is advisable to get a solicitor to prepare this document to ensure that it covers all of the points that need to be made. There is no set format to these documents, but they may include any of the following:
• whether or not a divorce is planned in the future;
• what the arrangements are for the children;
• what maintenance is going to be paid;
• what is going to happen to the house.

Living together agreements

Couples living together believe that they are in a "common law" marriage and/or civil partnership. No such legal status exists. People assume that if they are in a relationship, they acquire the same legal rights as couples who are married or in a civil partnership. That is wrong.

If you live with someone, be that a same sex or heterosexual relationship, the basic rule is that you have no legal rights against them or responsibilities to them.

Whilst that is the basic rule, if you have made financial contributions towards a property or you have children together; things are not as clear cut. In these circumstances you have legal rights against each other but the law in relation to them is extremely complex and, unravelling the financial or other aspects of a relationship to determine what the respective parties rights are against each other, can be time consuming, expensive and extremely stressful.

As more and more couples choose to live together, rather than marry or enter into civil partnership,, careful thought should be given to what might happen if the relationship were to break down. As well as protecting both you and your partner from whatever might happen to your relationship in the future, living together agreements can also sort out the day to day workings of living together now and in the future.

Although it is entirely preferable to make a Living Together Agreement when you first move in together, it is never too late to do so. Even if you have been together for 15 years, it is still possible to and a good idea to enter into a Living Together Agreement.

By making a Living Together Agreement, parties tend to be prompted to discuss how their living together will work in practice and what their expectations are of each other. In fact, many couples find that just making the agreement strengthens their relationship.

Making such agreements also helps to organise the day to day finances of living together. it prompts the parties to the relationship to think about easy and fair ways to divide up day to day costs, avoids niggling arguments about who is paying for what and other disagreements that can sometimes arise during a relationship.

Apart from regulating your day to day living together, a Living Together Agreement is also useful because if you split up it can help you to do so as amicably and and fairly as possible.

Living Together Agreements have a slightly strange status in law. The Courts will not let you sign away rights that the law gives you, but a Court will generally follow what you both agree if:

• it still produces a fair result for you
• you were both honest about your finances at the start and when entering into an agreement
• a Court is even more likely to uphold the agreement if both of you also had some legal advice about what you were doing.

We highly recommend that parties living together make an agreement. This is not a declaration of the fact that you are about to dump each other, but it is reality that even with the best of intentions on all sides, if the relationship does not last and you split up many years down the line it may be impossible at that stage to remember what you agreed with each other in the event of a break up. This may make things even more difficult if you do break up.

It is also the case that complex legal issues can arise as the consequence of living together where, for instance, you buy property together and contribute equally or unequally to the property. It is important therefore to determine the respective rights of each of the parties in such circumstances where the law does not make any assumption about what will happen because you split up, as it would if you were married or in a civil partnership.

If you are currently not married or in a civil partnership or if you are intending to live with someone, contact CMG Cunningham Dickey Solicitors where you will find that experienced and sensible advice is available to help you protect your rights.

Belfast address

18 May Street
County Antrim
Northern Ireland
t: 028 9023 4606
f: 028 9032 6578

Bangor address

3 Market Street
County Down
Northern Ireland
BT20 4SP
t: 028 9145 7911
f: 028 9145 0679


Brian H Speers
Michael Robinson
Jonathan Hewitt
Mark McAdam
Audrey Atcheson
Julie Ann Osborne


Hugh Logan
David Marshall
Michael Body
Keith Cowan


Timothy Haslett
Christopher Jess
Emma Stephenson

The Law Society of Northern Ireland
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