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Legal Information: Delaware

Divorce

Updated: 
April 5, 2019

What is the difference between an annulment and a divorce?

If you get your marriage annulled, it basically means that according to the law, the marriage “never happened.“ When filling out forms, for example, if the forms ask if you were married before, you can say “no.”

If you get a divorce, this recognizes that the marriage was a legal marriage and it was dissolved (or ended) by a divorce.

What are the grounds to file for divorce in Delaware?

In Delaware, the only ground (reason) that you can use to file for a divorce is that the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” which basically means that the marriage has permanently broken down and cannot be fixed.1 You can prove that the marriage is irretrievably broken by showing one of the following:

  1. voluntary separation, which you both agreed upon;
  2. separation caused by your spouse’s misconduct (bad behavior); Note: The misconduct must be so destructive to your marriage that you cannot reasonably be expected to continue being married to him/her. Misconduct includes, but is not limited to, adultery, bigamy, conviction of a crime where your spouse is in prison for one or more years, repeated physical or verbal abuse against you or your children, desertion (abandonment), willful refusal to perform marriage obligations, getting a sexually transmitted disease, habitual drunkenness or drug use;
  3. separation caused by your spouse’s mental illness; or
  4. separation caused by incompatibility, which basically means that you both really can’t get along but it’s not either person’s fault.2

The word “separation” used in numbers 1, 3, and 4, above, means that you and your spouse must be living separate and apart for 6 or more months before the judge will grant a divorce (this does not apply for a divorce based on #2 above). However, you may file for divorce at any time after you have separated from your spouse. It does not mean you must be separated for 6 months before you can file, just before the divorce is granted.3

Note: You can still be considered “separated” and “living separate and apart” if you live in the same house together as long as you occupy separate bedrooms and do not have sexual relations with each other. If you and your spouse attempt to reconcile (get back together) before you are divorced, even if you temporarily sleep in the same bedroom and have sexual relations, it will not interrupt or eliminate the time counted towards the 6-month requirement of living separate and apart as long as you have not slept in the same bedroom or had sexual relations with each other for 30 days immediately before the court hears the petition for divorce.4

1 13 Del.C. §§ 1502(3), 1505(a)
2 13 Del.C. §§ 1503(8), 1503
3 13 Del.C. §§ 1503(7), 1507(e)
4 13 Del.C. §§ 1503(7), 1505(e)

What are the grounds to file for an annulment in Delaware?

You can file for an annulment if you can prove one of the following grounds:

  1. Either spouse was unable to consent to the marriage when the ceremony was performed because of:
    • mental illness
    • incapacity or
    • the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other similar substances;
  2. Either spouse entered into the marriage because s/he relied on a fraudulent act or representation of the other spouse, and the fraudulent act or representation goes to the essence (core) of the marriage; (For example, if your spouse lied and said s/he was heterosexual but later you find out that s/he knew s/he was gay when you got married);
  3. Either spouse (or both) got married because of duress (force/threats) by the spouse or by another person;
  4. Either spouse (or both) got married as a joke or a dare;
  5. Either spouse was physically unable to consummate the marriage (have sexual intercourse) and the other spouse did not know of the lack of physical ability at the time the marriage ceremony was performed.
  6. Either party was under 18 at the time of the marriage and the marriage was not confirmed by such underage party after reaching legal age. Note: Only the spouse who was underage (or his/her parent or guardian) can file for an annulment no later than 1 year after the date of the marriage.
  7. The marriage is prohibited by law and therefore void – here are some examples of void marriages:
    • your spouse is already legally married to someone else (bigamy);
    • you married your sibling (including half-sibling), uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, or first cousin;
    • if either spouse is on probation or parole and did not file with the marriage-license clerk a written consent to the marriage from the appropriate person in the court or institution that granted the probation or parole.1

Note: There are certain time limits to file for an annulment based on the ground that you are alleging and in some situations, only one spouse can file. The rules are:

  • To file under the grounds for annulment listed in numbers 1 – 4, only the aggrieved (wounded) spouse can file the annulment. It must be filed within 90 days after s/he becomes aware of the described condition (i.e., incapacity, fraud, threats, or joke or dare).
  • To file under the grounds for annulment listed in number​ 5, either spouse can file for an annulment no later than 1 year after s/he becomes aware of the lack of ability.
  • To file under the grounds for annulment listed in number 7, either spouse can file at any time before the death of either spouse. (It can even be filed after the death of a party within certain time limits.)1

In an annulment proceeding, property can still be divided up, just like in a divorce. Also, children born in the marriage are still considered to be “legitimate.”2

1 13 Del.C. § 1506(a) & (b); see also 13 Del.C. § 101(a) & (b)
2 13 Del.C. § 1506(c) & (d)

What are the residency requirements to file for divorce in Delaware?

To file for divorce in Delaware, either spouse must live in the state or be stationed in the state as a member of the armed services of the US for at least 6 months before the filing of the petition.1  Note: The court can have jurisdiction (power) over divorces and annulments of same-gender marriages that are solemnized in Delaware or created by conversion of civil unions pursuant to the laws of Delaware, even if neither resides in Delaware.  For more information, please consult an attorney.  You can find legal referrals on our DE Finding a Lawyer page.

1 13 Del.C. § 1504(a)

What are the basic steps for filing for divorce?

While divorce laws vary by state, here are the basic steps, generally:

  1. First, you must meet the residency requirements of the state in which you wish to file.
  2. Second, you must have a legally acceptable reason (“ground”) to end your marriage. The grounds can be fault-based (such as adultery or cruel treatment) or no-fault-based. The most common no-fault divorce ground is often called “irreconcilable differences,” an “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage, or something similar.
  3. Third, you must file divorce papers and have copies served on your spouse. (To learn more about filing a summons, preparing a petition, and service of process, go to the Starting the Court Case page in our Preparing for Court - By Yourself section.)
  4. Fourth, how the divorce goes forward will depend on whether your spouse agrees to the divorce and/or whether or not your spouse responds to the divorce complaint once it is served upon him/her. Here are a few different possibilities of what could happen:
    • If your spouse agrees with everything in the divorce papers, s/he should sign the papers and send them back to you and/or the court. This is called an “uncontested divorce.” If there is property that you need divided, if custody of children is an issue, or if you need financial support from your spouse, you will have to agree about those issues in an out-of-court settlement in order to have an uncontested divorce. However, when there are children of the marriage, some states require that custody be decided as part of the divorce. Therefore, in those states, you could not get an uncontested divorce if you cannot agree upon a custody arrangement.
    • If a certain period of time passes and your spouse does not sign the papers or file any papers of his/her own, you may be able to proceed with the divorce as an uncontested divorce anyway. You should speak to a lawyer in your state about how long you have to wait to see if your spouse answers the divorce papers before you can continue with the divorce.
    • If your spouse disagrees with anything in the divorce papers, your spouse will then have the opportunity to file papers telling his/her side and asking for the outcome s/he wants. This is called a “contested divorce.” Even if your spouse agrees that s/he wants to end the marriage, disagreement on property, finances, custody, or other issues means you may have to attend a series of court appearances to have a judge decide those issues.

You can find more information about service of process in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section, in the question called What is service of process and how do I accomplish it?

Do I need a lawyer?

You don’t need a lawyer to file for divorce. However, divorces can become very complicated, especially if there are custody or property division and support issues involved. It may be in your best interest to hire a lawyer, especially if your spouse has one.

It is very difficult to predict how much a divorce will cost. It will depend on many factors, including things like how much your lawyer charges per hour, what kinds of issues are involved in the case and how complicated they are, whether you need any experts such as psychologists, whether a guardian ad litem is appointed for your child(ren), and whether or not you and your spouse can agree on any of the issues. Also, depending on the situation, the court may order your spouse, based on the financial resources of both parties, to pay all or party of your attorneys’ fees,1 so you may want to speak with your attorney about this.

If you can’t afford an attorney, you may be able to get free legal services. You may be able to find an attorney on our DE Finding a Lawyer page. If you do decide to represent yourself, you may be able to find some helpful forms on the Delaware State Courts website.

1 13 Del.C. § 1515

If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.