Understanding Your Divorce Decree … and Why It Matters!

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Divorce Decree with a pen on it.If you’re going through a divorce, you know you need a divorce decree (a/k/a “divorce judgment”). You know it’s an important document. But there are so many documents involved in divorce. You may not be entirely sure what a divorce decree is, or what should be in it.

Yet, because your divorce decree IS so important, it’s worth taking the time to understand what it is, and what it does.

So What’s a Divorce Decree?

A divorce decree is another name for a final judgment of divorce. It’s a document that is signed by a judge and entered in court. Depending upon where you live, your final divorce paperwork may be called a Divorce Judgment, a Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage, a Divorce Decree, or something similar.

What the final paper is called is not nearly as important as what it does: it ends your marriage.

What’s in a Divorce Decree/Divorce Judgment?

Your divorce judgment does more than just divorce you, though. It also covers at least five subjects:


     Child Support and the Payment of Children’s Expenses;

    Parenting Issues (ie Custody/Parental Decision Making and Parenting Time);

    Property Division; and

    Debt Division.

In addition, depending upon your circumstances, your divorce judgment may also contain many other provisions relating to the end of your marriage.

For example, it may contain provisions about taxes and the payment of attorney’s fees. It may allow you (or your wife) the right to resume the use of your/her maiden name. Or, it may contain other provisions that are specific to your situation and your divorce.

What’s the Difference Between a Divorce Decree and a Marital Settlement Agreement?

While statistics vary, at least 90 – 95% of all divorce cases settle out of court. Cases that settle do so by agreement. That means the final paperwork in those cases will include both a Divorce Decree (Divorce Judgment) and a Marital Settlement Agreement.

Even though the Marital Settlement Agreement may be a separate document, however, it is generally incorporated into the Divorce Decree. That means that the terms of the Agreement are made a part of the final divorce judgment.

Lawyer at his desk pointing to a document.Who Writes a Divorce Decree?

Divorce Judgments are very specific legal documents. They must contain certain language and they must be accurate. They also must be written properly.

If your divorce judgment is NOT written properly, then you may find out after the fact that it doesn’t really say what you thought it said. Or you may find out that something that SHOULD have been written into your divorce judgment is missing.

That’s when you have a problem.

When something is wrong, vague, or missing from your divorce decree it is much more likely that you and your spouse will end up back in court, fighting over it again. That’s NOT what you want to have happen.

Because the final divorce documents in your case are so important and can be so technical, generally lawyers write them. Some states (like Illinois), now have simple, general divorce forms online that you can use. Or, you can also use legal document services like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer to generate your legal documents for you.

Using court forms or an online document production service to generate your Marital Settlement Agreement and Divorce Judgment is better than trying to write them yourself. But having a divorce lawyer write them for you will be better still.

Lawyer-written documents will be written specifically for you and your situation by someone who practices law in the court that will divorce you. That makes a HUGE difference.

It’s true that having a lawyer write your final divorce documents will be more expensive than having an online service crank them out for you. But, like everything else in life, you get what you pay for.

What Do You Need to Know About Your Divorce Judgment Before It’s Entered?

Divorce Decrees are final Orders of Court. They MUST be accurate and they should be complete! That’s why it is vitally important for you to double and triple-check everything in your divorce judgment BEFORE it’s entered in court.

But checking for accuracy goes beyond just reading the words in your divorce decree. It means that you have to make sure that the underlying information that the decree is based on is also accurate.

What does that mean?

It means that if your divorce decree says that you get $10,000 from your bank account and your spouse gets $10,000 from your bank account, that you actually have $20,000 in your bank account to split!

It also means that you did your due diligence before your divorce judgment is entered in court to make sure that the asset values you used to divide your marital property are accurate. Otherwise, the property division you end up with after your divorce may be entirely different than what you envisioned it would be before your divorce.

Here’s an example.

The McCourt Divorce

In 2010 Jamie and Frank McCourt, former owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, were divorced. At the time of the divorce, the Dodgers were in bankruptcy.

Jamie received $131 million and several luxury homes in the divorce settlement. Frank McCourt received sole ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Frank later sold the Dodgers for $2 billion.

After Frank sold the Dodgers, Jamie took him back to court claiming that he misrepresented the value of the team, and that he shortchanged her by $770 million in their divorce.

The trial court ruled against Jamie, and the Appellate Court affirmed that decision. In essence, the court held that Jamie had made a deal. Even though it turned out later that she had made a bad deal, a deal was a deal.

Jamie should have investigated how much the Dodgers were worth BEFORE she signed the divorce settlement papers. If she didn’t do her due diligence, that was her problem. She couldn’t go back and ask Frank to pay her more money after their divorce was over.

Chances are, neither can you.

Close up of a red "Error" button on a white keyboard.Can You Change Your Decree After It Has Been Entered in Court?

Once the judge has entered the divorce judgment in court, it is extremely difficult – if not impossible — to go back and change most of the terms of the deal you made. It’s also difficult to go back and correct errors in the judgment as well.

Of course, if your spouse agrees to change your divorce decree, you can do whatever you want. Correcting errors can be in BOTH of your best interests. But if your spouse doesn’t agree to change what you want, then changing your divorce decree can be a real problem.

Also, like Jamie McCourt, you have an obligation to investigate your own financial situation. If you don’t take the time to investigate your whole financial situation before you sign a settlement agreement, and you make a bad deal, that’s your problem.

Of course, if your spouse purposely lied to you, or actively hid the truth from you, that may be a different story. But, proving that kind of fraud in court is much more difficult than you think.

There is one important exception to the rule that “a deal is a deal.” That exception surrounds your kids.

Changing “Kid” Provisions 

Children grow up. Circumstances change. Because of that, you can usually change parenting time schedules and parenting rules as your kids grow up.

Again, if you and your spouse can agree on those changes, making them in court is easy. If you don’t agree, then you may be in for a fight. But at least, under the right circumstances, the parenting provisions in your divorce judgment can be changed.

So can child support (and sometimes alimony).

If you or your spouse change jobs, or your income increases or decreases in a substantial way, child support (and possibly alimony) can be changed.

How Do You Get a Copy of Your Divorce Decree?

Your divorce lawyer should give you a copy of your divorce decree after it has been entered in court. If you don’t have a divorce lawyer, you may be able to get a copy of the decree from the Clerk of the Court in the county in which you were divorced.

Some courts will mail a copy of your divorce judgment to you (or your lawyer) after it has been entered. In other courts, either you or your lawyer has to be physically present in court to get your divorce judgment entered. In that case, the court may not mail you anything.

If you’ve lost your divorce judgment, or you don’t have a copy of it for whatever reason, you can get a copy from the Clerk of the Court in the County in which you were divorced. You may also be able to get a copy from the vital records department of the county in which you were divorced.

Do You Need a Certified Copy of Your Divorce Judgment?

Like any good divorce lawyer, I’ll tell you that the answer to that question is a definite: Maybe.

You will need to present a copy of your divorce judgment to the social security department and the Department of Motor Vehicles or Secretary of State if you want to change your name. You may also need to present your divorce judgment in order to sell your home, get a passport, and divide your retirement accounts.

While not all of those agencies will require you to present a certified copy of your divorce judgment, some will.

In general, it’s better to err on the side of caution. If you can, get a certified copy of your divorce decree as soon after your divorce as possible.

If you don’t need it, that’s fine. But if you do, you won’t have to scramble to order it from a government agency years after the fact.


Head shot of Karen Covy in an Orange jacket smiling at the camera with her hand on her chin.

Karen Covy is a Divorce Coach, Lawyer, Mediator, Author, and Speaker. She coaches high net worth professionals and successful business owners to make hard decisions about their marriage with confidence, and to navigate divorce with dignity.  She speaks and writes about decision-making, divorce, and living life on your terms. To connect with Karen and discover how she can help you, CLICK HERE.


after divorce, children and divorce, divorce advice, divorce blog, divorce financial planning, divorce tips

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    • I save every email you’ve been sending me for almost a year now. I find them to be very valuable during this confusing time of starting a divorce. I’ve noticed some blogs I go back to & read again so I can see the next step a bit more clearly.
      Thank you so much for all this information I have & for what will come. It’s definitely shed a most needed light to my path! I really do appreciate everything you put here & wanted to let you know you’ve definitely helped me!
      Thank you!

  • Hi,
    I am from South Africa, going through a conflicted divorce settlement where we cannot agree on a final settlement amount..
    I married with ANC with Accrual system.
    I am The one with the lower estate. Half of the estate was supposed to be given to me in terms of the accrued amt. He wud not settle on that.
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    he settled on R300 000.00 whereby the accrued amt of the estate was R374 000.00 owing to me. This is without taking into account any of his pension or bank accounts.
    I was forced out of the house for my own safety and well-being and having to incur a lot of extra expenses due to this. No maintenance for my extra expenses. (no children involved.)
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    what are my chances?
    I am now seeking a mediator to settle out of court..
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    • What you’re asking are legal questions. I can’t answer those online or outside the state of Illinois. You’ll have to ask a good divorce lawyer in South Africa those questions. Sorry.

  • There was a Mediation agreement, though not filed and no final judgement or decree. I still am disputing the alimony part because I have nothing and gave her everything. When going to court on this will the judge review everything and make the change if it is reasonable and fair?

  • I’ve been divorced for about 14 years now and when we got divorced he actually filed with his lawyer and I was completely unaware he had gone to court and done that until I got a notice saying I was divorced. I was annoyed that I wasn’t notified about the court date, he said I was notified but I received nothing. It wasn’t that big of a deal at the time because we had a settlement agreement that we had both signed and just hadn’t finalized anything yet. However, recently I need my divorce decree which I was never sent so I had to go to the DMV to get a copy and when I looked at it most of my information was wrong and the date we were married was wrong. My place of birth, city and state, wrong, my maiden name wrong, there were about 4 or 5 things on there that were wrong about my personal information and dates. How important is this? Should I get this fixed? All the information was correct on the separation agreement so for his attorney to make these types of mistakes was just sloppy. I never saw it after the divorce so I had no idea until recently. What should I do.

    • Oh wow! That’s a lot of mistakes!

      Unfortunately, you’re asking a legal question that I can’t answer online or outside the state of Illinois. You really need to ask a divorce attorney in your area about this. Sorry!


  • Hi . I am another victim of the divorce process, My case has been 27 months and I still don’t know when it will end. I did not have children in my marriage, just a house that we bought and I had to sell it and the benefit of the sale is in the hands of my ex’s lawyer because she was the one who introduced the divorce. I am currently waiting (Nov 4-19) for an EBT from his lawyer. My question is how can I make this process end soon? EBT is the last step for the trial in court. What is at stake is 200K. I am a worker with an income of 45K I only have my 401K and my savings. how your counseling works at this time in this process. I am looking for a solution to the process, she is not. It is possible that on my own I hire someone to solve this divorce claim without my ex’s consent due I have not had contact with her for two years and I don’t know where she lives. I live in New York, I appreciate any opinion about it. thanks

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  • we have property settlement that got delayed so does this mean that my final decree is delayed as well once the settlement goes through? or is a decree and property settlement 2 different things?

    • What you’re asking is a legal question. Unfortunately, I can’t give legal advice online or outside the state of Illinois. The good news is, this is a pretty quick question. You should ask your divorce lawyer or, if you don’t have one, talk to a good divorce lawyer in your area. Even if you have to pay to get the information, it should be relatively inexpensive because answering it shouldn’t take too long.

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  • Hi I have just recently divorced but I didn’t receive anything in the mail from the courthouse where I divorced. Was I supposed to receive anything or do I just assume since the Nisi period ended that I’m divorced?

  • I’ve been divorced for almost 20 years but never saw my divorce degree until recently. My ex had gone to court to finalize the divorce without me, I didn’t find out about it until after the fact when I got a letter from his attorney saying the divorce was final. No big deal however, when I needed a copy of my divorce decree I went to the DMV and got one and realized lots of my/our information was incorrect. The date we were married was 2 years later than it actually was. My birth state was wrong, My maiden name was wrong, my birthdate was wrong etc. What can I do now to fix these errors?

    • The only way to fix the errors will be to file a motion, go to court, and ask the judge to amend your divorce judgment. You’ll have to check with an attorney in your area to figure out how to do this AND whether it’s still possible. If your judgment was entered 20 years ago, you may not be able to change anything now. On the other hand, at this point, changing your divorce judgment might not even make sense. Since every state is different, I suggest you talk to an attorney in your area to figure this out.

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