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A final divorce decree is a legally binding document that officially states that your marriage is over. Furthermore, it details how your marriage ended – insofar that it is a summary of the decisions made and finalized throughout the divorce proceedings, either through settlement or a court judgment, at the end of a long divorce battle.

If you’ve ever wondered when your divorce will be final, the answer is: once you’re holding a certified copy of your divorce decree in your hands. With the finalization of your divorce decree, the marriage is officially ended, and both parties may legally remarry.

A divorce decree also details post-divorce obligations such as custody arrangements and visitation rights, alimony, and child support, as well as whether either party is eligible for a name change (such as an ex-wife reverting to her maiden name). A divorce decree is not to be confused with a divorce certificate.

One is a court order, and the other is a vital record that exists purely for record keeping. While most processes that may require confirmation of divorce would be satisfied by a divorce certificate (such as remarrying or applying for certain visas), there are cases where only a divorce decree can grant the required authorization.

Understanding the Divorce Process

Your divorce decree finalizes the divorce, and acts as the very tail end of what is often a lengthy and arduous process. A divorce can take months, if not years to complete, depending on how thoroughly the two parties were entangled with one another over the course of multiple decades, properties, and children.

Even a short-term childless marriage can take time to dissolve, and the current number one state for fast marriage dissolutions – Alaska – still requires about 30 days for a divorce to go through. All divorce proceedings begin with a petition. Each state has its own residency requirements to begin the divorce proceedings, but in general, a couple must be physically separated before they can begin a divorce.

The petition is also the time for both parties to conclude on whether either party can claim fault for the divorce, or whether it was a no-fault divorce. Once the divorce process officially begins, either party can request temporary orders to enforce at least part of the couple’s divorce requests before a judge can finalize them via a decree.

Temporary orders act as court orders on matters of custody, property, child support, alimony, and living arrangements before these are finalized in a divorce decree. Temporary orders are particularly important for primary caregivers without a stable source of income – if one spouse was relying on the other for financial support while being a stay-at-home parent, for example, a temporary order can enforce spousal support and child support before the divorce is finalized.

In cases where domestic violence or abuse played a role in the breakup, temporary orders may be accompanied by protective orders. Once the court opens a divorce case, the filing spouse must serve their ex-partner with a copy of the petition, and file proof of service with the court (verifying that their ex was served).

In most cases – especially those where both parties want to split up – this is a pretty simple process. What happens from here on is a matter of amity, attitudes, and intentions. Many divorcing couples seek to keep things as simple as possible and strive for a seamless settlement. But all it takes is one major spark to light a serious fire and create a powder keg situation for a lot of former couples.

If neither party can come to a unanimous agreement on the major matters at hand – from property division to custody and alimony – the alternatives available include mediation, trial, and judgment. If a settlement was reached, then a judge will review it and, if deemed fair and in accordance with the law, the process will move onto judgment. At the end of the judgment of divorce lies the final decree of divorce.

What a Divorce Decree Includes

A divorce decree can differ in terms of structure from state to state, but the contents are usually the same. They can include:

    • Alimony
    • Authorization for name change
    • Child support
    • Custody
    • Division of assets and property
    • Division of liabilities (debts)
    • Division of pension funds/retirement plans
    • Parenting time
    • Spousal support

What your divorce decree will contain depends entirely on how your divorce case goes, how you negotiated, and what you decided or wished for. Always be sure to review the decree with your attorney before a judge signs off on it. Note that you can appeal a divorce decree and should do so if you were coerced or under duress. Different states have different statutory requirements before proceeding with a decree amendment, and in some cases, your circumstances may call for another divorce hearing altogether.

Getting Another Certified Copy of Your Divorce Decree

If you did not receive or have misplaced your copy of the divorce decree, you can get another one. Divorce decrees, unlike divorce certificates, are generally only available to either party and their attorneys. You can request a certified copy by contacting the clerk’s office in the county that you were divorced in.

It helps to keep the divorce case number on hand, which can be found by doing a little digging through your county’s respective case records. If you are looking for a divorce decree that is older than ten years, you can find it via your state’s vital records. The CDC provides citizens with a tool for doing so. Divorce decrees aren’t typically kept on file for longer than a decade in most counties.

What If You Want a Copy of Someone Else’s Divorce Decree?

That is slightly more difficult to do. If you want to obtain a copy of someone else’s divorce decree for some reason, you need an authorization from one of the divorced parties in the form of a signed and notarized letter, affidavit, or notice, explicitly granting you permission to retrieve the document.

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