What Is a Divorce Decree?

Quick Answer

A divorce decree is legal paperwork that formalizes the end of a marriage and outlines its legally binding terms. It includes everything from final decisions on custody or child support to how joint debts are handled. You’ll often need to provide copies of it when making post-divorce changes to financial accounts or legal names.

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Ending a marriage can be a lengthy process that includes expensive lawyers, court filings, emotional negotiations, considerable expense and an eventual divorce settlement. Once a divorce is finally official, both ex-spouses become subject to what's called a divorce decree.

A divorce decree is a formalized agreement between a court and the two divorcing individuals that legally ends a marriage and lays out how finances, custody and other key areas will be divided and handled moving forward.

What Is a Divorce Decree?

Marriages are legally formalized with a marriage license, and they are legally ended when a divorce decree is issued.

Once a divorce decree is signed by a judge, the divorcing pair and their attorneys (if used), the document serves as legal proof that the marriage is officially over as of that date. It also outlines all of the terms of the divorce that were negotiated, settled or judge-mandated during the process.

Depending on your situation, a divorce decree might include terms on:

  • Child support
  • Spousal support/alimony
  • Custody and visitation arrangements
  • A name change (if one person is reverting back to a maiden name, for example)
  • Financial decisions, like how marital assets and debts are to be split

A divorce decree and its instructions are legally binding and enforceable. For example, if your ex is mandated in the divorce decree to pay child support but fails to comply, the court can take a variety of legal actions such as wage garnishment to enforce that obligation.

Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Certificate

As we've covered, a divorce decree is a detailed document that outlines all of the nitty gritty details of your split, including personal financial details.

Some states also issue an optional document called a divorce certificate, which is essentially a very slimmed-down version of the divorce decree. It's intended to serve as legal proof of the divorce without needing to disclose all of the personal details contained in a divorce decree. It contains only basic information, such as your and your ex's names, the judge's name, the divorce date and location.

In states that issue divorce certificates, you may be able to use these documents rather than a decree for post-divorce matters, such as changing your name, making changes to accounts or when you remarry. To find out if this is an option, contact your state's vital records office.

How Does a Divorce Decree Impact Debt?

A divorce decree typically outlines the division of assets and debts, and it may specify which partner is responsible for making a payment each month. However, joint responsibilities like a mortgage don't just disappear when the marriage ends.

That's because divorce decrees do not change your agreements with creditors or service providers. Even if your ex-spouse has agreed to make payments on joint debts, your divorce decree does not amend the original agreements with your lenders saying that you are also financially liable.

Your lenders will still consider you co-obligors, equally liable for debt repayment regardless of what your divorce decree says. Because of that, these accounts are likely to remain on both spouses' credit reports and continue to influence both parties' credit scores. That's a good thing for your credit if your ex consistently pays the bills on time. But it means you'll face consequences if your ex doesn't hold up their end of the agreement.

In other words, if your ex is responsible for a joint debt like a credit card and fails to pay on time, this will go on both of your credit reports and hurt both of your scores. If they refuse to pay at all, the creditor can come after you. In some cases, it's best to pay it yourself and then notify the court, asking the judge to order your ex to reimburse you.

If you're worried your ex will make late payments or miss payments on accounts that will remain in your name, it may be smart to close those accounts or see if you can remove each other from accounts you're no longer responsible for.

How to Get a Copy a Your Divorce Decree

Post-divorce, there are many instances where you'll need to show or provide a copy of your divorce decree to business or government agencies, especially if you're changing your name. Some businesses and government agencies will accept a regular non-certified hard copy, but it's common to be required to provide a certified court copy—especially for serious things like taking an ex off a bank account, adjusting an insurance plan or changing your name with Social Security.

When you're at the courthouse for the final hearing and you receive the divorce decree, you'll want to hang on to that original copy. Since you'll need some certified copies, it's ideal to stop by the court clerk's office while you're there and order several certified copies of the divorce decree. There will usually be a fee of several dollars per copy. Put those in a file or safe at home to have handy.

If you weren't at an in-person hearing where you had a chance to get these, or you ran out of certified copies, contact the court clerk's office in the county where you divorced. Some places allow you to request certified copies online, while others require going in person.

Keep an Eye on Your Credit

While divorce doesn't impact credit directly, it can have indirect impacts on your credit. If you and your ex share any joint loans, credit cards or other debts, and they're responsible for payments, be aware that their failure to pay can hurt your credit just as much as theirs.

Because of this risk, it's important to monitor your credit following your divorce, which you can do free with Experian. You'll be notified of any changes to your credit report and can keep tabs on the status of your accounts. Divorce is hard enough already; make it easier on yourself by knowing potential pitfalls and how to protect yourself.