Legal terms and documentation concerning divorce can often be confusing, especially for people going through the emotional charges of a divorce and its trying legal process. Understanding the difference between a divorce decree and divorce certificate is just one of the many important details you may find yourself sorting through.
In 2019, there were more than 750,000 divorces and annulments in the United States. That means a lot of people changed their marital status, and to do so, they had to undergo various marriage dissolutions or disbanding complications.
Today, we will focus on two often mistakenly interchangeable terms—a divorce decree (also called “final decree/judgment”) and a divorce certificate.
And yes, these are two entirely different documents. So, without further ado, let’s find out how to distinguish one from the other.
What is a Divorce Decree?
Here’s a simple divorce decree definition: it is a document that officially ends a marriage and has provisions concerning the duties and responsibilities of each party after divorce. In addition, a decree can incorporate a settlement agreement if the couple agrees on all terms between themselves.
These terms include financial obligations (e.g., alimony and child support), custodial rights, property division, etc. The spouses and the judge must sign this decree.
Several states have a mandatory waiting period before the issuing of a final judgment. For example, in New York, divorces are granted no sooner than 60 days after the petition is filed. However, the waiting period can also be waived in certain circumstances.
The signed decree should be filed with the clerk’s office when both spouses, often in the presence of their lawyers, have agreed on and signed the settlement agreement. It can also happen after the final hearing is over—if there was a hearing. The signed decree is essential because the case is not finalized until the clerk at the court receives, records and stamps this signed document.
Is a Divorce Decree the Same as a Judgment of Divorce?
Yes, the divorce decree, the final decree of divorce, and the final judgment of divorce are different names for the same document. So, for example, in California, the spouses will receive the “Judgment,” in New York State, it will be called “Judgment of Divorce,” and “Final Decree of Divorce” in Texas.
On rare occasions, you can stumble onto the name “divorce sentence document,” which has become obsolete and is rarely used in connection to divorce in the U.S. As you see, there can be several alterations of the same title.
What Does a Divorce Decree Look Like?
A divorce decree is a several-page long document. The title page begins with the case (or cause) number, the name and address of the court that handles the case, and the full names of both spouses.
Below goes the name of the document, usually in large bold letters. The title will most likely have the words “decree” or “judgment.”
Although the form of this document is different in each state, the content is more or less the same.
Essential Parts of a Divorce Decree
- Information about the plaintiff and the defendant: full name, address, phone number, social security number, employer’s address, etc.
- Jurisdiction. Basically, the court states that it has the power to enter judgment concerning the marriage dissolution based on the residency of the parties.
- Information about children. The names, social security numbers, ages, and addresses of all children (natural or adopted) under 18 years old or those older than 18 attending high school at the moment of filing for divorce.
- Conservatorship matters. This section is especially long. It addresses the issues of the conservatorship type (sole or joint), the visitation schedule, each parent’s essential duties, and responsibilities, etc.
- Child support: who will pay child support and who will receive it, how much it will be, who will pay for medical and dental costs and insurance, etc.
- Property Division. This chapter determines each party’s separate property (belonging to only one spouse) and marital property. For example, it can be anything from real estate and vehicles to furniture and wedding bands. The decree also includes the orders on how to split the assets and debts between the parties. (See What is a Divorce Financial Settlement?)
- Spousal support. This section determines who will pay it, in what amount, and for how long.
- Name change. The spouses can ask to change their names back to their maiden names in this section.
- Court costs. This part states that the party that incurred the costs is responsible for paying them unless they requested a waiver and the court approved it.
How Many Pages is a Divorce Decree?
The more complex the situation between the spouses, the more pages and information a divorce decree will have. For example, judgments concerning simple marriage dissolutions may consist of 3-8 pages. But some cases require a decree of up to 25 pages.
An average divorce decree form has 8-15 parts (sometimes even more) that the spouses fill out (with or without the help of their lawyers or a mediator) if their case is uncontested.
And that is one of the tell-tale differences between the decree and the certificate. The former has more pages and content, while the latter typically comes printed on one page.
What is a Certified Divorce Decree Copy?
The marriage dissolution process ends with the court’s review of the signed divorce decree, or when the court hearings are over, all the documents are signed, and the divorce decree is filed with the court clerk. Once it is entered into the system, the clerk’s office where the initial papers were filed can provide the ex-spouses with a certified copy of the final judgment.
Basically, a certified copy of a divorce decree is a paper copy of the original document signed by the notary or person holding it. The clerk will probably charge a specific fee for the verified copy (approximately $10-$15).
In some states, a copy of the decree can be ordered online. Yet, most of them require that it be collected in person.
SAS Tip: Once divorced, we recommend you contact your courthouse or via online arrange to receive 3-5 copies of your notarized divorce decree. You may need a notarized version for official dealings in your future (like reverting to your maiden name) and you will not want to lose control of your original notarized version.
Sometimes, a person needs to present a copy of the decree to another court, e.g., for resolving child-related matters. In this case, they would need an exemplified copy of their judgment.
Exemplification of a divorce decree is a similar procedure to the certification. The difference is that a certified copy is signed by the clerk only, while the exemplified one is signed by both the clerk and the judge.
What is a Divorce Certificate?
A certificate of divorce is a document providing basic information about the divorced couple that states the fact the marriage ended.
What does a divorce certificate look like? It usually consists of one page and has the full names of the parties, date, time, and place of divorce. Sometimes, it also includes the place and date of where the now-dissolved marriage was entered.
The court does not issue a divorce certificate. Instead, it comes from the State Department of Health or similar institutions, such as the Vital Records Department. These institutions often allow ordering the certificate online after the case is final. Either spouse can access this document upon providing a driver’s license, ID card, or other photo-ID forms.
When Would You Need a Divorce Certificate?
A divorce certificate serves as proof of the divorce. It serves the following purposes:
- Name change;
- Obtaining a visa or passport;
- Insurance and retirement matters;
- Getting driver’s licenses, etc.
Usually, there are no confidential details of a divorce order in this certificate. For this reason, many people choose to show this document instead of the decree as proof of their marital status.
Let’s sum up the above information.
1. Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Certificate
There’s no such thing as a divorce decree certificate. A divorce decree and a certificate are two separate documents. A divorce decree usually consists of several pages. It contains all the marriage dissolution terms, such as property division and child custody arrangements.
Conversely, the primary purpose of a divorce certificate is to prove the fact the marriage ended. It is printed on a single page and only contains the names of the parties and the date and place of divorce.
2. Judgment of Divorce vs. Divorce Decree
The divorce decree has the same meaning as the judgment of divorce. In essence, these are different names for the same document. Legally speaking, a judgment (decree) is a written court order stating that the spouses are divorced.
After the spouses and the judge signs this order, it must be filed with the clerk, who will enter it into the system. Until then, the marriage dissolution is not final.
Jamie Kurtz is a divorce lawyer and a member of the LA County Bar Association and the State Bar of California. She’s a co-founder of a law firm dealing with uncontested divorces and a contributing writer for OnlineDivorce.com, an online divorce papers preparation service.
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