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Divorce decree and Divorce certificate

What’s the Difference Between a Divorce Decree and a Divorce Certificate?

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

  1. Information about the plaintiff and the defendant: full name, address, phone number, social security number, employer’s address, etc.
  2. Jurisdiction. Basically, the court states that it has the power to enter judgment concerning the marriage dissolution based on the residency of the parties.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?)
  7. Spousal support. This section determines who will pay it, in what amount, and for how long.
  8. Name change. The spouses can ask to change their names back to their maiden names in this section.
  9. 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;
  • Remarriage;
  • 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.

 

Notes

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.

Since 2012 smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner them through the emotional and oftentimes complicated experience of divorce. We invite you to learn what’s possible for you. Schedule your FREE, 15-minute consultation with SAS. Whether you are thinking about it or actively dealing with divorce, choose to acknowledge your vulnerability and learn from others. Choose to not go it alone.

Divorce decree

Demystifying Your Divorce Decree

What is a Divorce Decree? And who decides what’s in it?

The Divorce Decree, often referred to as the “Judgment of Divorce” or “JOD,” is the document that makes your divorce official under the law. It’s an Order of the Court that formally dissolves a marriage.

As anyone who has been through the process will tell you, the road to that Divorce Decree is long even in a straightforward case, and just when you think the end is in sight, there is often another bend in the path. People are usually relieved to arrive at a Divorce Agreement (the final resolution of all the issues in the divorce by agreement of you and your spouse—with or without the assistance of a court along the way) only to learn that the divorce process is not quite over.

Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Agreement

The Divorce Decree is a completely separate document from your Divorce Agreement, and no one even starts thinking about the Decree until the divorce case is fully settled between you and your spouse and memorialized in the Divorce Agreement, or all the issues have been decided by the Court.

The Divorce Decree is only a handful of pages whereas the Divorce Agreement could be fifty or sixty pages. However, just about every Decree includes a sentence saying that the terms of the Agreement are made a part of the Decree “by reference.” This means that each term of your very, very detailed Agreement is solidly enforceable regardless of whether it is also specifically mentioned in the brief Decree.

The Divorce Decree is prepared by your lawyer and submitted to the Court to be signed by the Judge. Most often you, your spouse and your lawyers agree to the wording of the JOD and sign off on the Decree that is submitted to the Court. But sometimes you won’t be able to agree on the terms of the Decree. When this happens, each party submits a Proposed Judgment to the Court and the Judge chooses which one to sign.

Once the Judge signs the Decree, it needs to be processed by the County Clerk’s Office and entered into the County’s records. Only then is the Judgment finally ready for pickup.The lawyer who filed the Judgment is usually the one who obtains a copy from the Court, and she will serve it on the other party with a cover sheet called the Notice of Entry. Service of the Divorce Decree with Notice of Entry and filing a copy of that Notice of Entry in Court makes your divorce as official and final as can be.

I keep hearing about “Divorce Papers.” What are those?

The Judgment of Divorce is submitted to the Court with about fifteen other documents (give or take depending on the case, but always including your Divorce Agreement if you have one). Some of these need to be signed by you, some need to be signed by your Ex, and some are signed by one or both of your respective attorneys. Together, these documents are referred to as “Divorce Papers.”

One spouse’s lawyer will prepare the Papers, and the other spouse’s lawyer will review and edit them. The back-and-forth over the Divorce Papers usually takes a few weeks, but take heart: this process is generally low stress and a world away from negotiating the Divorce Agreement.

The court system in most places is very strict about the contents of the Papers so the negotiation about the contents primarily centers around technical concerns and formalities rather than substance.

Related: How Long Does It Take to Get Over a Divorce? And 4 Signs You Are On Your Way

So when will I have that final Decree in hand?

In geographic areas with busy court systems, like New York City, it often takes about three months from when your lawyer files your Divorce Papers until the Judgment of Divorce is signed by the Court, entered into County records by the Clerk, and made ready for pickup. In today’s automated world, this long processing time seems shocking, but the Court system is mind-bogglingly old fashioned even in the “greatest city in the world.” In other places in the country it could be must faster—or slower.

Your lawyer needs to send someone to hand deliver the Divorce Papers to the Courthouse where there is sometimes only a single person whose job it is to review and accept the Papers. When this person takes a vacation, no Divorce Papers can be filed. It is as simple (and absurd) as that. Depending on whether your case was ever in litigation or not, your Papers will either go directly to your Judge or be randomly assigned. Reviewing Divorce Papers is tedious grunt work, and all the Judges have stacks of them so they tend to hang out for a while. When the Papers finally make it off the Judge’s desk and are recorded in the Clerk’s Office, your lawyer is not notified by email but instead by postcard.

But I’m ready to work on moving on and putting the divorce process behind me. Am I at the mercy of the County Clerk to start living like I’m divorced?

The good news is that most people will feel emotionally divorced upon the signing of their Divorce Agreement and Divorce Papers.

The “Big Day” in the life cycle of a divorce is the day the you and your soon-to-be Ex sign your Divorce Agreement—or less frequently, the day the Judge hands down a final decision after a trial on the issues in the divorce.

By the time most people receive their signed and entered Divorce Decree in the mail from their attorney they have put much of the upheaval of the divorce process behind them. They’ve been living by the custody and support terms of their Divorce Agreement for a few months and have divided most, if not all, of their property. They’ve begun the important work of individually recovering and rebuilding their lives.

Is there anything that absolutely must wait until I receive my Divorce Decree?

While most of the terms of your divorce go into effect when you sign an Agreement or after a Judge decides the issues in your case, there is one big exception.

You cannot make changes to health insurance coverage until the Divorce Decree is entered in the Clerk’s Office. The law is extremely strict about this—you are entitled to remain on your spouse’s health insurance plan until the Judgment of Divorce is entered into the records of the County Clerk.

My Divorce Decree is finally ready. Where do I get a copy, and what do I need it for?

You can obtain a Certified copy of your Judgment of Divorce at any time for a nominal fee. In New York County the fee is $8.00 plus a few cents per page in copy charges. Some counties allow you to obtain a Certified copy by mail, but others still require you to go to the County Clerk’s Office in person. If you are represented by an attorney, he or she will usually obtain a Certified copy and send it to you for your records as a matter of routine.

The Divorce Decree is an extremely important record akin to a birth certificate or marriage certificate. You will need it if you want to change your name after divorce and again to obtain a marriage license if you want to remarry someday. It is also proof of your divorce that may be relevant to areas like your income taxes, insurance policies, social security benefits, and retirement accounts.

Your Divorce Decree is also a powerful document because it is a Court Order. If you ever need to call the police because there is a custody problem, you will want to have the Decree to show them. Similarly, if you ever need to go to Court to change or enforce the terms of your divorce, you will need to submit a copy of the Decree.

Two or three Certified copies retrieved directly from the Court is probably enough to maintain on hand as a photocopy will suffice for many purposes. You can obtain additional copies at any time no matter how long ago your Divorce was filed.

 

For more than 20 years, Nina Epstein and law partner Elyse Goldweber have helped individuals and families in the New York City metropolitan area with the full range of legal issues associated with creation and dissolution of personal unions—including divorce, separation, and child custody and support. Ariella Deutsch is a more recent but no less passionate member of their legal team. 

Since 2012, SAS for Women is entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.