Divorce Decree: What Is It & When Do You Receive It?

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Going through a divorce can be physically and mentally draining. But what adds to your emotional turmoil is the legalities involved in it. The process torments you until you have the divorce decree in your hand. Even after all the lawful proceedings and the ending of the trials, your divorce is not considered final until you receive the settlement and decree. So you must be wondering what this decree is and how long you have to wait to obtain this court document after filing for a divorce. Read on as we tell you all the important details regarding a divorce decree in the US, the contents and duration for issuing the document, and more in this post.

But before we proceed, let’s look at the US divorce rate in 2021. Divorce rates in the US have been notoriously high, but over the last few years, this number has seen a decline. As observed in the graph below, the number of divorces amongst younger couples is much less than that of older couples. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2021, 1.07 million women aged between 35 to 39 years opted for divorce, while 3.35 million women aged between 65 to 74 years chose to end their marriage.

Divorce rates in the US by age and gender (2021)

Source: Number of divorced individuals in the United States in 2021, by age and sex; Statista/US Census Bureau
In This Article

What Is A Final Divorce Decree?

Final divorce decree

Image: IStock

A divorce decree, aka divorce judgment, is a document signed and issued by the family court after the termination of the marriage. The decree summarizes the marriage settlements, agreements, rights, and responsibilities of both parties.

It will also have the basic information such as the case number, the names of the parties, date of divorce, etc. It will also outline the terms of the agreement in the case of the dissolution of marriage (divorce by mutual consent).

Divorce is a process that can impact the spouses psychologically owing to the time, feelings, and emotions they invest in the marriage. Therefore, one needs to mentally prepare for the process. Jessica McSperitt, a mother and writer, shares her emotional status after receiving the divorce decree. She vents, “Six years almost to the day after separating, I received my divorce decree, and there was absolutely nothing about it that made me happy other than to be done finally. I thought I might feel a sense of relief or even, in some strange way, the desire to celebrate the ending of something really long and painful, but I didn’t. Numbed sadness and acceptance was all I felt as I read through the email attachment (i).”

The divorce decree is different from the divorce certificate and divorce record.

What Is The Difference Between A Divorce Decree, Divorce Certificate And A Divorce Record?

All these three documents are different and have their own purpose. Here is how they differ. However, these may differ from state to state.

Divorce decreeDivorce certificateDivorce record
An official document that finalizes the divorce process.Pronounces that the couple is now divorced.Contains the entire information of the divorce process in a single file.
Issued by the state court where the divorce took place.Issued by the state’s health department or the bureau of statistics.Available at the court that has processed the divorce.
Is like a court’s order that explains the duties and responsibilities of both the parties post-divorce.Serves as proof that the couple is no longer married. Contains minimal information such as names of the parties, date, and place of divorce. Typically has the same purpose as that of a birth or marriage certificate.Is documentation of the whole divorce process. Is useful if either of the parties wants to file an appeal or a motion in the court.
Point to consider
Applying for a divorce certificate without submitting legitimate identification proof is a prominent reason for application denial.

What Does A Divorce Decree Usually Contain?

Contents of a divorce decree

Image: Shutterstock

Along with the information such as the names of the parties, date of divorce, case number, etc., a divorce decree covers the below important matters:

  1. Alimony: If one of the parties is financially dependent on the other, then the financially better spouse has to give them alimony. Alimony can be permanent, temporary, or rehabilitative. The frequency, means, and duration of the payment are all finalized before the decree is signed.
  1. Property division: The divorce decree includes the details about the division of all the properties between the two parties. Make sure the decree is clear about the division to avoid any litigationiTaking a dispute to court if the parties themselves cannot resolve it in the future.
  1. Division of debt: This divides the joint debt taken during the period of your marriage, and the terms and means of its payment.
  1. Custody: Once both parties agree, the court finalizes the joint custody agreement of the children. It cannot be modified unless there is a major change in circumstances in the lives of the children or parties leading to a situation where one parent acquires sole custody of the child.
  1. Visitation and child support: The decree contains clear terms of visits and child support. Lines such as “Each must spend reasonable time with the children” are vague and can be misinterpreted. Hence make sure the decree outlines the visitation rights and visitation schedule and terms such as the frequency, time, transportation, costs associated with each visit, etc.

You need to go through the decree carefully because once you sign and send it to the court, it is difficult to make any changes in it. If you are unable to understand the terms, take the help of your attorney.

When Is A Divorce Decree Issued?

The issue of the divorce decree is the last step in a divorce procedure. The decree is issued in two ways based on how your divorce is processed.

  1. If your divorce went through a trial, then the judge examines all the evidence, weighs the testimonies, and decides on the rights and responsibilities of each partner, especially spousal support towards child support, alimony, visitation, etc. Both partners are legally bound to follow the decision of the court, and if one of the partners refuses to follow, the other can register a complaint against them.
  1. In settlement divorce cases, once the couple submits the agreement in court, the judge examines the marital agreement and determines if it is fair and in accordance with the law. If yes, the judge issues a divorce decree stating all the terms and conditions of the agreement. If one of the parties fails to abide by the rules of the settlement, then the other partner can file a motion with the court to enforce the agreement.
Point to consider
You and your partner can file for divorce together by agreeing on all terms and signing the necessary paperwork before submitting it to the court. This process is called co-petitioning (7).

The decree takes more time in the case of a trial than in mutual agreement. In both situations, the parties write up an agreement and sign. Then the judge signs it and puts a seal of approval.

When Do You Receive Your Divorce Decree?

After the judge signs it, the decree is sent to the records office. Here the clerk enters the judgment and the date of the divorce in the court records. The copies are then mailed to each party or to the attorneys representing them.

How Long Does It Take For The Paperwork?

It usually takes a couple of weeks to months. The duration depends on:

  • The volume of divorce cases in the court and the time taken for the judge to get to your case number.
  • In certain US states, there is a waiting period to give the couple one last chance for reconciliation.

Once you get the decree, you need to go through the copy carefully to make sure everything is right and there is no need for any changes in it.

Can You Change A Final Divorce Decree?

Parties can file for an appeal to modify the divorce decree

Image: IStock

Once the final divorce decree is signed and submitted, making any changes involves an elaborate process. The court permits it only in certain instances such as:

  • The decree has some mistakes or grammatical errors.
  • One of the parties signed the decree under duressiUsage of a threat or force to make someone do something against their will .

If there was a trial, parties can file for an appeal to modify the divorce decree. Here is an overview of the process.

  1. Notice of appeal: This is allowed only when there is a significant error of fact or law or an abuse of discretion by the judge. Then the affected party can file a notice of appeal. There are strict guidelines and procedures to be followed, failing which can deprive you of the right to appeal.
  1. Record on appeal: Once the notice of appeal is received, the court prepares a record on appeal. It consists of all the trial documents, the clerk’s records, and the court reporter’s trial transcriptsiWritten summary, usually of something that happened in another medium, covering all details from the beginning till the end .
  1. The appellate briefs: The party, who is filing the appeal, must then prepare their part of the arguments, including all the documents such as case records, clerk’s documents, reporter’s transcripts, etc.
  1. Arguments: If the court permits oral argument, then time is given for both the parties to present their case. No witness or evidence is considered.
  1. The decision: After the court has received all the documents and has heard the arguments, it will take 30-60 days to process and reach a conclusion. Again this varies from state to state.

An appeal process is expensive, and the result may or may not be as desired. However, modifications are less expensive and can be quickly processed.

Quick fact
Either of the parties can apply for modification of a divorce decree; however, the petitioner and the respondent will remain the same (6).

What To Do After You Get The Divorce Decree?

Divorce decree

Image: Shutterstock

Getting the divorce decree is a big relief to you as the long and arduous process is finally over. However, before you think about your future course of action, here is what you should do after you get the decree:

  1. Go through the decree: A divorce decree is no fun to read, but make sure you go through the entire document. If you have trouble understanding the legal jargon, then seek help from your attorney. Do not assume things as the divorce decree is important for your life after divorce.
  1. Make a note of the obligations: The document contains certain obligations that you and your ex-spouse have to follow. Make a to-do list of all these obligations to avoid violating the divorce decree.
  1. Update the necessary documents: Now that the divorce is final, you can go ahead and change the important documents such as the will, power of attorney, insurance policies, emergency contact information, bank accounts, nominees, tax withholdings, etc.
  1. Take out some time for yourself: Relax and take out some time for yourself. Hit the gym, meet your friends, go out on a short trip, or simply start reading a book, as you would need all the positive energy you can get.

What Are The Uses Of A Divorce Decree?

A divorce decree is needed to officially close your divorce process. The written document marks the completion of the divorce. You might need to have a divorce decree for the below reasons:

  • A divorce decree allowing you to retain your maiden name must be produced to change your name back in the passport, social security, credit cards, etc.
  • To refinance the marital residence and remove the spousal name from the mortgage.
  • If you want to marry again, the state will want to see the divorce decree at the time of registration.
  • To file motions against your ex-spouse when they fail to abide by the agreed terms and conditions.

How Can You Get A Copy Of Your Divorce Decree In Future?

Department of archives

Image: IStock

Once your divorce is finalized, the court will send you or your attorney a certified copy of the divorce decree. You can also get a free copy from the below-mentioned sources.

  1. Court clerk’s office: The court clerk’s office keeps a copy of the decree (1). You can identify your decree in their office through a simple online search using the case number. If you do not have the case number, then you can also search by using your name, date of divorce, attorney name, etc.

In certain states, you can submit a request form to the office to mail you a copy of your divorce decree. They would charge a fee for sending the copy. If you are not one of the divorced parties and need a copy of the decree, then you must submit a notarized letter or signed affidavit from one of the parties granting you the permission to view or obtain the divorce decree.

  1. Department of archives: After 10 years, the divorce decrees are moved from the court clerk’s office to the department of archives variously known as the department of vital records, the office of vital statistics, etc. You can download the application form from their website, fill it and submit it with the processing fee and mail to the department (2). If you are not a party, then you also need to submit a notarized letter from the party permitting you to view and obtain a copy.
  1. Attorneys: You may also contact the attorney, who has processed the case. Attorneys usually have copies of the decrees. You can also write a letter to your spouse’s attorney to help you with a copy.

It must be noted that the procedures are different in different states in the US. So, know the procedure in your state and go ahead accordingly.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can I get a copy of my divorce decree online?

In the US, each state has its own procedure for obtaining a divorce decree. Online resources are available to search and locate your divorce decree. In order to obtain it, you either need to mail the vital records department or contact the court clerk’s office in person (3).

2. Is a divorce decree public record?

Just as any other court records, a divorce decree is also a public record. But upon request, the court can consider filing your divorce under seal. Even if it is a public record, it will not be shared with anyone except the parties involved.

3. Do I need a lawyer for help with divorce decree?

You need not hire a lawyer to help you with the divorce decree. But if you have employed a lawyer for the entire divorce process, they will help you in getting the divorce decree as well as in understanding it.

4. Can a final divorce decree be undone?

No, a final divorce decree cannot be undone. If you want to get back to your spouse, you need to remarry them. However, there are options to withdraw at various stages of the divorce. Here are some of them:

  1. After you have filed a petition of divorce or a complaint against your spouse, you must serve them with a copy of the complaint. If you want to go back at this point in time, then you just have to do nothing. That means, do not send the notice to your spouse and the court will dismiss the case.
  1. If you have already served the notice to your spouse, then you and your spouse may keep away from the court proceedings. The court might dismiss your case with a small fine. But if your partner goes ahead, they can get the divorce finalized on their terms (4) (5).
  1. You can also file a motion to dismiss your complaint. But if your spouse has filed a counterclaim, then the court can proceed until it receives dismissal motions from both the parties (6).
  1. Once the divorce decree is finalized, there is no way to take it back. All you can do is file a motion to modify it.

5. Does a divorce decree overrideiTaking action or making a decision using one’s authority to cancel or change something that has already happened a will?

Even after you have finalized your divorce decree, if you wish any changes in your will or property, you may do so; however, it is ideal for planning the division of your property and assets and including them in your final decree of divorce. In most cases, the judge will approve the division of property and debt as 50/50 (not always) when both parties agree mutually to it.

A divorce decree or divorce judgment is the final document signed and issued by the court after the dissolution of a marriage. It includes the summary of the rights and responsibilities of both parties involved, such as the financial agreement aid and responsibility of children, if present. You can also find an outline of the agreement’s terms, such as whether it is a mutual legal separation agreement or not, in the divorce decree. It is different from a divorce certificate since the certificate only says that the couple is now divorced.

Infographic: Points To Know About A Divorce Decree Change

If you’re going through a divorce, it’s essential to know about the divorce decree document that finalizes the marriage termination. However, people may sometimes appeal for changes and modifications in the decree even after the finalization. Our infographic provides some notable points you must remember about a change in a divorce decree.

things to remember about changing a divorce decree (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • A divorce decree is an official document with a written divorce judgment signed and issued by the court.
  • A divorce decree contains the parties’ names, divorce date, and details of the alimony, division of property and debt, child visitation and support rights, etc.
  • A divorce decree is usually the last step in a divorce procedure.
Divorce Decree_illustration

Image: Stable Diffusion/MomJunction Design Team

A divorce decree is the last step in the divorce process and is much shorter than a divorce agreement. Understand more about this ‘judgement of dissolution’ by watching this video.

Personal Experience: Source


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

1. How to get a copy of a divorce decree or certificate; USAGov
2. How to obtain certified copies of divorce records (2018); California Department of Public Health
3. Where to write for vital records; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
4. Petition and Summons (FL-100 and FL-110); California Courts, The Judicial Branch of California
5. Dismiss your divorce or legal separation; California Courts, The Judicial Branch of California
6. Modification of a Divorce Decree; Utah Courts.
7. Divorce, Separation, Annulment – Home; Oregon Judicial Branch.

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Maggie Terrasi is an attorney in Southeast Michigan, having graduated from the law school in 2003. Having 12 years of professional experience, she works with families to help them through the difficult times of custody or divorce and has been able to help clients protect their assets with estate planning ideas.

Read full bio of Margaret F Terrasi