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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. For more information on how they might assist you please call (212) 355-4149.

Since 2012 smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner them through the emotional and often times complicated experience of divorce. We invite you to learn what’s possible for you. Schedule you free, 45 minute consultation with SAS. Whether you are coping or already navigating your life afterward, a significant difference for women is the conscious choice to not do divorce alone.

Woman blocking door when served divorce papers

What to Do When You Get Served Divorce Papers

You’ve heard the doorbell ring. You go to the front door and open it, only to be met by a stranger who is handing you something. He says, “Are you Ms. Smith (insert your name)?” You have to think a minute about the answer, because you are facing a stranger and you have no idea what he wants. He leaves so fast you think you must be imagining this. But in your hand you are holding something.

You never thought you’d be reading these words: ACTION FOR A DIVORCE. And suddenly, a million things are going through your head.

What is your first step when you get served divorce papers?

Breathe. Breathe. And after you sit down, breathe again. There is a process to follow and here are your most important next steps …

Do not hide

Now, your first inclination might be to put your head in the sand. Hiding is a normal and expected response to the fears that you are facing as a result of those divorce papers. To you, those divorce papers signal the unknown, a future that could be radically different from the present that you have been living, and in ways that you cannot foresee. In order to overcome these natural feelings, you should set about finding a good team to represent and support you. In addition to your attorney who will play an important role (see step below), you may need a divorce coach who can help educate you and guide you, and/or a therapist who can help you maintain your mental strength. Or both. I know this sounds daunting, but I assure you that the time and money you spend now, connecting with the right people, will reap great rewards for you personally and professionally by keeping you tethered and strategic.

Get a good attorney and the right support

You will need to find a good attorney. A divorce coach can help you with vetted referrals, or your divorced friend may have some ideas. I suggest getting three referrals for matrimonial attorneys, and visiting all of them. I also recommend you only visit referrals who are willing to give you 30 minutes of their time without charging you. What you are looking for is someone who is smart, compassionate and experienced. You will need someone who is willing to listen to all of your concerns, even the ones that are not traditionally legal concerns. But, you also want to find a legal person who can protect your interests and fight for your rights, too.

Being served vs. serving divorce papers

Most people think that it’s better to serve your spouse papers than to be served. It is not always that way. In all states, including New York, the laws allow for a ‘no fault’ divorce, and most divorces are filed due to irreconcilable differences in the marriage. In these cases, being the party who gets served doesn’t really matter much. Certainly, if you are served with divorce papers that accuse you of adultery, abandonment or one of the other causes for divorce that may still exist in your state (like New York), you will be forced to defend against those grounds and unfortunately, this will cause you more angst, time and money.

Get prepared

You need to get prepared for a legal action. Being prepared means a few things, depending upon your circumstances:

 1. If you have children, you need to provide them with the love and support that they will so desperately need at this time. For this, I highly suggest that you visit with a family or child therapist, who can help you with the challenging things like how to tell the children, how to help them manage through the transition and how to support them so that their suffering is minimized as much as possible. Most importantly, your children will feel the pull of their loyalties to you and your spouse, their other parent. This pull can be very distressing to them, and is often so distracting and stressful that it affects their ability to handle the other responsibilities they have, their relationships with others in their lives, and it can affect their mental health. It is critical that you understand this pull of loyalties, that you identify the behaviors or actions on your part that exacerbate them, and work hard to avoid them. Your divorce coach can help you manage your parenting challenges or a divorce lawyer can provide you with referrals to experienced family or child therapists.

2. When you are alone at home, spend time going through your family’s financial records. Make copies of all deeds, leases, or other important documents. Go to your online bank and credit card accounts and download three (3) years of your back statements to a zip drive. While you are doing this, you should secure the online accounts by changing the passwords. If you are locked out of any of those accounts or cannot find the important documents, make a list of the accounts and documents that you know exist to provide to your attorney.

3. Start dreaming about your future as a single person. Yes, I know it is hard, almost impossible, but it is a habit that you need to develop and the sooner you start, the faster and easier it will be to realize your dreams. Marriage is great. It is an institution in our society because it is great. But, singleness is no less great. What have you held yourself back from doing (or what has your spouse held you back from doing?) that you have always wanted in your life? In particular, is there a work or educational pursuit that you have put on the back burner? Now is the time to start dreaming about those things. The dreams will provide you with guiding light when you need it.

Robyn Myler Mann is Partner and Director of the Mediation Practice Group of the Law Firm of Poppe & Associates, PLLC in New York City. Ms. Mann offers a free consultation to potential clients, and is available to discuss whether your matter would be best served by mediation or a more traditional legal approach.