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What Is a Divorce Decree?

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Sep 22, 2022

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What Is Custody

Sometimes couples grow apart, and relationships end. Unfortunately, almost half of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Separation can be stressful, especially if children are involved or several assets must be divided between a couple.

These issues can sometimes be resolved outside of court, especially if a couple is on good terms. Spouses struggling to agree on issues like child custody arrangements or the division of property will have to go to court and let a judge decide.

When divorce proceedings are complete, the judge will issue a document known as a divorce decree alongside their final judgment to formalize the ending of the parties’ legal union.

What Is Custody

Divorce Decree Defined

A divorce decree, also known as a divorce judgment, is the court document divorcing couples receive when the judge issues a final ruling regarding a divorce case. It serves as proof that a marriage is over. A divorce decree should also spell out the terms of the divorce.

The terms will include what each party is entitled to in terms of assets. The divorce judgment will also list each party’s obligations, such as child support payments or alimony payments. Both parties should keep a copy and use it as a reference if they ever need a reminder of their legal obligations.

What Is Contained in a Divorce Decree?

In a divorce decree, you’ll find general information about the case, such as the identifying information of each spouse and any minor children, the case number, and the official end date of the marriage.

You’ll also find detailed information regarding the terms established during the divorce proceedings and what your and your ex-spouse’s responsibilities will be moving forward.

A divorce decree is legally binding, which means it is enforceable under the law (by either party) if one spouse is not abiding by the terms initially agreed upon.

General Information You’ll Find in a Divorce Judgment:

  • Case number
  • Judge’s name
  • Attorneys involved
  • Court address and phone number
  • Identifying information (spouses and minor children)
  • A statement certifying a name change (when applicable)

Binding Orders You’ll Find in a Divorce Judgment (When Applicable):

  • Child custody arrangements (sole, joint, legal, physical)
  • Child support payments (who is paying, how much, and how often)
  • Alimony payments (who is paying, how much, and how often)
  • Division of property

Once again, divorce decrees are legally binding, and you can hold your ex-spouse accountable under the law if they refuse to comply with the terms. Keep a copy of your divorce decree for your records.

When Are Divorce Decrees Issued?

Divorce decrees are issued by a court when a divorce case is considered final and complete; there must be no outstanding issues or remaining court dates. You’ll receive your divorce judgment when all relevant matters have been resolved, the divorce terms are in writing, and the judge has approved the marital settlement agreement.

The court will mail the official document to you and your ex-spouse’s respective attorneys. Your divorce attorney will then send you a certified copy of your divorce decree for you to keep. Many divorced spouses opt to have their attorneys keep a certified copy in case they misplace theirs. Getting a new one can be lengthy; it involves filling out forms, and you might have to pay a fee.

Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Certificate

Even though the terms are often used interchangeably, a divorce decree and a divorce certificate differ. Each document serves its purpose. A divorce decree formalizes the end of a marriage and outlines each party’s responsibilities and financial obligations post-divorce. There are typically many pages in a divorce judgment.

A divorce certificate is much less complex; it simply proves that the marriage has ended. The certificate is usually no more than one page long. It will include the identifying information of each ex-spouse(full names), the location, and the date the divorce was finalized.

Also, while a court of law issues divorce judgments, divorce certificates are not issued. You’ll most likely obtain your divorce certificate from your state’s health department via the same division that issues birth certificates. The Bureau of Vital Statistics could also give it.

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How To Get a Divorce Decree

There are a couple of ways you and your spouse can obtain a final divorce decree; by mutual agreement (uncontested divorce), at a court hearing, or at a trial where a judge would issue it when the divorce proceedings are complete.

By Mutual Agreement

Divorce by mutual agreement is when two spouses determine that their marriage is no longer working and decide to part ways without any issues or disputes between them regarding the terms of the divorce.

Since neither party is fighting the other, there is no need for an extensive litigation process, and a divorce judgment is granted much more quickly. This type of court proceeding is known as an uncontested divorce proceeding.

For mutual divorce proceedings to be successful, the following must be true:

  • Both parties have been living apart for a minimum of one year.
  • Both parties have tried (and failed) to reconcile; making amends is not an option.
  • Both parties understand and agree to the terms of the dissolution of marriage.

Divorce by mutual agreement is a very straightforward way for ex-spouses to obtain their divorce decree. Without open disputes, the court can reach its judgment much faster than in most divorce cases.

By Trial and Court Hearings

Another way to obtain a divorce decree is via trial and court hearings. A divorce trial and a divorce hearing are not the same, but you’ll likely experience both if you go this route.

A hearing can happen once or multiple times throughout the case; they are most often used to address pressing issues in the short term, and rulings are usually not permanent. Things like temporary child custody or temporary alimony could be awarded to a spouse at a divorce hearing (pending trial completion).

A trial will happen at the end of your divorce; it’s when the judge signs off on your marital settlement agreement. When a final judgment is made, any temporary rulings will be considered null and void (in most cases).

Remember, at a trial, divorce decrees are issued when a divorce case is considered final and complete; there must be no outstanding issues or remaining court dates.

How To Obtain a Certified Copy of Your Divorce Decree

As mentioned above, after your case is final, your divorce attorney will mail you a certified copy of your divorce decree once they receive it from the court. If you misplace your documentation, you’ll have to request a new one. If you had your attorney hold onto a copy for safekeeping, you could order it from their office.

Attorneys must hold onto client files for a minimum time (varies by state) before disposing of them. You can also request a copy from the records office at the court where your divorce was formalized. Some states allow you to request a copy online, but you might have to mail in your request.

Here is the information you’ll need to include in your mail-in request:

  • Copy of your driver’s license (or state I.D. card if you don’t have one)
  • Divorce case number
  • Your name and the name of your former spouse
  • Your primary address
  • Request date (date sent)
  • Divorce date (the date a judge formalized it)
  • Address of court where the divorce was formalized
  • Type of decree you’re requesting (final divorce decree)
  • The reason you need the decree
  • A filled-out request form (varies by state)
  • Your signature

Requests may still be accepted without all the above information, but keep in mind that you’ll likely have to pay a fee if you want the court to track down your case file with limited information. Make sure you have a sound record-keeping system in place so you don’t lose the necessary documentation and have to undergo the hassle of replacing it. This can be time-consuming and even costly.

What Happens Once You Get Your Divorce Decree?

Once the judge signs your divorce, you and your ex-spouse will have specific responsibilities to uphold. The divorce terms ordered by the judge are legally binding, so ensure you fully understand what you’ve just agreed to.

Review the Terms

If you’re having trouble understanding something, consult your attorney so they can explain it to you. If, after reviewing the terms, there is anything you don’t fully agree with, such as the amount of child support or spousal support (alimony) you’re being ordered to pay, you can file an appeal. Your attorney can assist you with that as well.

Update Documents

After a divorce is formalized, you’ll need to ensure your status change is reflected across all relevant documentation. This means you’ll need to update your living will (if you have one) and assign a new beneficiary on your life insurance policy.

You’ll also need to assign new powers of attorney (ex: medical proxy), notify your banking institution and all other relevant parties of your name change (if applicable), separate all finances by getting your bank accounts, and request new credit cards.

Property Settlements and Divorce Decrees

Your divorce judgment will also spell out how property division is meant to be handled. Property can be divided either equally (50-50) or equitably (“fairly”). Equitable distribution is determined based on things like how much each spouse initially contributed to the asset(s) financially, how long they were married, and their incomes (among other factors).

All property is considered marital property by default upon marriage if you live in a community property state. Therefore, all assets will be divided equally, even individual assets obtained before marriage (including debt). Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin are all community property states.

Debt Liability and Divorce Decrees

A divorce decree does not impact your current agreements with lenders or creditors. You are still liable for any debt under your name (ex: personal loan), no matter what you may have discussed with your spouse before the divorce was final. A judge cannot overrule the terms of an existing loan agreement.

If your former spouse agrees to continue helping you pay down a joint debt but doesn’t keep up their half of the monthly payment, you’ll have to pay the total amount or risk taking a hit on your credit. The lender will pursue whoever was initially listed on the account until the balance is paid in full.

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