Gentlemen, welcome again. In this post, we will be dealing with how the divorce process works in Nigeria. At the end, you will know the steps you need to take if you want to get a divorce in Nigeria. We will also mention a few law firms that handle divorce cases in a later post – the list won’t be exhaustive by the way but it would be helpful.
Before we begin.
Have you watched any American movie where a couple got divorced? The process must have seemed so simple right? In one scene some white sheets of paper aka divorce papers appear. And it seems that by just signing the divorce papers, the marriage gets split in two and each spouse is free to go their separate ways (i.e. to their papa haus). You might think that that is how it also works in Nigeria – you just sign divorce papers and the marriage ends. We regret to inform you that it is not so.
We’d break down the divorce process in Nigeria summarily. Don’t forget this post doesn’t amount to legal advice. It is also not meant to replace legal advice. So, when you need to, please speak with a lawyer of your choice. So, let’s begin.
How soon can I get (or ask for) a divorce in Nigeria?
You can start the process for getting a divorce within a week of your having been married. Don’t be surprised please. And no, we don’t hope your marriage ends that quickly. It is just what the law currently provides.
However, if you want to get divorced in less than 2 years of the marriage, the procedure is not just that straight forward. This is because, generally, you would need the Court’s permission first to even begin the divorce process. To get that permission, the Court would have to be convinced that you will suffer ‘exceptional hardship if you are refused permission or that your spouse has displayed ‘exceptional depravity’ within the short period of the marriage. This general requirement for permission, does not always apply in some specific instances e.g, persistently refusing to consummate the marriage (that is have the first marital sex), committing adultery and the spouse finds this intolerable to live with, sodomy, bestiality etc. – Section 30(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act.
If we were to say that with a little more legalese, we would quote parts of Section 30 of the Matrimonial Causes Act. Permit us to, we won’t quote any other weirdly lawyerly things after this one.
The Section states as follows
30(1) Subject to this Section, proceedings for a decree of dissolution of marriage shall not be instituted within two years after the date of the marriage except by leave of the Court.
(2) Nothing in this section shall apply to the institution of proceedings based on any of the matters specified in section 15(2)(a) or (b) or 16(1)(a) of this Act or to the institution of proceedings for a decree of dissolution of marriage by way of cross proceedings.”
The rule (which is called the two-year rule) is clearly targeted at preventing people from hopping in and out of marriages at a hair’s breadth. If you however have to file for a divorce after two years, you would not need this initial permission from the Court.
We should also tell you that getting an order of Court is in most cases really a walk in the park. That’s not to scare you. Or better still, when scared – talk to a lawyer.
But on a serious note, you hardly would file for a divorce and get the order of Court on that same day. This is because, the divorce process in Nigeria takes sometime especially as it is largely a litigation process (that is a process that involves suing in Court). This notwithstanding, there exists the option of divorce mediation which can help save costs and time.
On what basis can I file for a divorce in Nigeria? (What are the grounds for divorce in Nigeria?)
There is only one legal reason (or ground) for which you can file for and be granted a divorce (or a dissolution of marriage) in Nigeria. The reason is this – the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Once you are able to show the Court that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, the Court will make a decree order nisi (a temporary decree). After three months, this decree of the Court becomes absolute or final and the marriage is ended. We will explain this decree order nisi and absolute subsequently.
But for now, back to the ground for asking for a divorce from the Court which is – that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.
To convince the Court of this irretrievable breakdown of the marriage that we’ve spoken about, you would be expected to prove that any one or more of these facts have happened in the marriage –
- Your spouse has deliberately refused to have the first sex with you on a persistent basis (in other words your spouse has refused to consummate the marriage)
- Your spouse has committed adultery and you find it intolerable to live with him or her
- Your spouse has behaved in such a way that you cannot be reasonably expected to continue living with him or her. This can include various behaviors such as habitual drunkenness, committing rape etc.
- Your spouse has abandoned you (i.e. deserted you) for a continuous period of 1 year immediately before your filing for divorce
- You and your spouse have lived apart for a continued period of at least two years immediately before your filing for divorce and your spouse also wants the divorce (i.e. he or she does not oppose your petition for the divorce)
- You and your spouse have lived apart for a continued period of at least three years immediately before your filing for divorce
- Your spouse has for a period not less than one year failed to comply with an order of the court directing him or her to resume conjugal rights. Just to mention, Conjugal rights are the intimate rights of marriage including comfort, companionship, affection and sexual relations.
- Your spouse has been absent from you for such a time and in circumstances that permit the reasonable presumption that he or she is dead.
On the issue of being abandoned or deserted by a spouse, it is necessary to mention that in some States, doing such a thing is a crime.
What if I don’t want a divorce immediately, I just want to take a break from the marriage?
What if you don’t intend to outrightly walk out of the marriage? Maybe you feel that it would be best for you and your spouse to spend some time apart and maybe think things through. Don’t worry, the law has got you covered. In a situation like this, you can approach the Court and ask for a decree of judicial separation.
When the Court grants your request for judicial separation, you are in law relieved from the obligation of co-habiting with your spouse. But this does not affect the legal status of the marriage. In other words, the marriage is still intact – in the eyes of the law.
Also, we should mention that if things don’t work out after the judicial separation has been granted, you (or your spouse) can begin the actual divorce process.
If on the other hand, things get rosy again between you and your beloved and you both resume living together (i.e. co-habiting), you can apply to Court to discharge the decree of judicial separation.
How much does it cost to get a divorce in Nigeria?
The cost of getting a divorce in Nigeria is not fixed since most divorce cases in Nigeria are often contentious. Like we have said it is a litigation process, which can be won or lost. Therefore, lawyers often charge based on various matrix. Since all lawyers do not charge the same amount, the legal/professional fee will vary from one lawyer to another.
Give me some practical steps on how exactly I should start the divorce process?
- Consult a Lawyer – this is the first step to it all even after reading this article. Why? you might ask. Consulting a lawyer would help tell if your complaint about what has happened in the marriage is a ground (i.e. enough reason in law) to approach the Court for a divorce. For example, your husband’s loud snoring at night and intermittent messing of the air (farting) when he sleeps may not be reason enough to go to Court and ask for a divorce. Speaking with a lawyer would also determine a host of other things like –
- if from the nature of your marriage you need to take steps to get a divorce (or dissolution) of your customary marriage (if there was any).
- Which of the petitions best suit the situation you are in – i.e. whether you need to file for a decree of nullity of marriage, judicial separation, restitution of conjugal rights or dissolution of marriage etc.
- Whether the two-year rule applies to your situation
- The forum convenience for filing the divorce papers
- Preparation of the divorce papers for filing in Court: after speaking with the Lawyer, the divorce papers can then be prepared by the Lawyer for filing in Court. Some documents would be needed for the filing eg. Your marriage certificate. Now it is also important to mention that while speaking with the Lawyer, you might discover that an outright divorce may not be the best option for your situation and you might consider rolling up your sleeves to give the marriage another bout of respiratory support. By that we mean, you might try getting the love burning again like wild fire. So, the first step is very important.
- After the filing of the papers, the Court process will begin. Like we have said before, getting a divorce in Nigeria is largely a litigation process and so it would take a while for the Court to give its judgment. Like we mentioned before, once you are able to show the Court that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, the Court will make a decree order nisi (a temporary decree). After three months, this decree of the Court becomes absolute or final and the marriage is ended in other words, you’ve divorced your spouse.
Written by Frederick Nkobowo ESQ
 Sections 16, 47 and 48 of the Violence against persons prohibition Act 2015,