A final decree of divorce is the court’s formal order granting a termination of a marriage. If the case goes to trial and the judge issues a judgment, the judgment is confirmed when the decree is signed and dated by the judge and court clerk.
What Is a Final Decree of Divorce?
A divorce decree is the final court document in a divorce. A decree is not the same thing as a divorce certificate.
When will my divorce finally be final? It's a nagging question many people find themselves asking while they deal with the fallout—and countless legal considerations—of a divorce, especially if it's contentious. But good news: If you're already preparing to address your final divorce decree, then you're in the home stretch. Legally speaking, a divorce isn't final until you've signed your divorce decree, sometimes called a "divorce judgment" or "judgment for dissolution of marriage" depending on which state you reside, and a judge has rendered the seal of approval.
Understanding a Divorce Decree
Most divorce decrees cover the topics of alimony, division of debt, and the division of property along with the messier, litigious issues of custody, visitation, and child support, if applicable.
Sometimes referred to as spousal support and/or spousal maintenance, alimony is the amount of money that one spouse is ordered to pay the other. Very basically, this amount depends on whoever made more money during the marriage and the roles you both played. But there are lots of other circumstances a judge may also consider, including your prior standard of living, plus your health, age, and many other mitigating factors.
Division of Property
This aspect only comes into play when you and your spouse are unable to agree on who gets what. In order to rule on the division of marital property, a judge will identify, categorize (marital versus non-marital), and assign value to your combined assets. How your property is divided and split among you and your ex depends on state laws: Most states exercise equitable distribution, which dictates that any money and property you've both acquired belongs to whichever spouse earned and/or bought it. Community property states view that all income and assets earned during the marriage equally belong to both parties.
Division of Debt
The division of debt happens similarly to how property is divided. Before you've officially split, you and your ex have the option to pay everything off before filing for divorce or to decide whoever is responsible during the divorce negotiations (this usually happens whenever debt is too great to be paid off before the divorce). To divide debt, the court must determine which spouse incurred it and who benefited most.
Your final divorce decree might also contain other contingencies specific to your personal circumstances, such as a name-change authorization or the assignation of the party that's ordered to pay taxes and/or attorney’s fees, for example.
Before You Sign
Above all, your final divorce decree needs to be accurate (grammatically and otherwise) and contain certain language and contingencies that protect your legal interests. Your decree also needs to hold up if, for whatever reason, you need to modify or appeal the document at a later date. And if for whatever reason, your ex doesn't comply with what was set forth in the decree, you can take them back to court to enforce the terms. Here's what you should be looking for while you review the document:
- Wording related to the division of pension funds and/or a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). Retirement plans require very specific verbiage as they depend solely on how a third party will interpret their benefits. The IRS has laid out specific points on how it treats QDROs and what information a QDRO must contain.
- Phrases concerning child visitation and custody. Lawyers use the term "liberal and reasonable" when addressing visitation and custody, especially when it comes to parents deciding what's in a child's best interest, and you can run into problems when you're dealing with an ex that's anything but fair.
- Vague language.
- Missing provisions, agreements, or other pertinent information that you expected to see.
Read (and reread!) the final decree before giving your divorce attorney the okay to submit it for the judge's signature. Review the documents closely to make sure you're satisfied with the wording, no mistakes were made, and no language was changed. If you find the language confusing, contact your attorney for an explanation. Pay close attention to specific monetary amounts and values; you cannot be too careful.
Once you've signed it, modifying a final divorce decree can be extremely difficult, regardless of the reason. The only way to change it may be via an appeal, which can be a long, drawn-out process that requires stringent proof that your circumstances meet certain criteria, which are dependent on the state in which you live. If, however, you feel that you signed the decree under duress or felt threatened if you didn't sign, your attorney may be able to petition the court for a new hearing.
Getting a Copy
A final decree of divorce is archived in the vital records office of your courthouse, in the county in which you obtained your divorce. Keep this document for your records and you should also reread it after it's signed and entered into court records. In most situations, the court clerk or your attorney will mail you a copy of your final decree. If this doesn’t happen, or you need an extra copy, request the document (either in-person or in writing) directly from your county clerk’s office.