What Does "Enter a Decree" Mean for a Divorce?

By Victoria McGrath

A divorce decree states the terms of a divorce. The court approves the terms for the divorce based on a divorce settlement agreement or court-ordered resolutions. The court can enter a divorce decree relatively soon in an uncontested divorce where parties agree to the terms of the divorce. Or, the court can enter a final decree based on the final disposition of the case, after the judge resolves disputes between parties, over property division and child custody. Once the judge orders a divorce decree, a court clerk enters the court order in the legal record and issues a copy of the divorce decree to each party.

Decree

A decree means an enforceable order based on legal authority. A divorce decree refers to a court order regarding a divorce, generally made under the authority of a family law judge. The judge issues a court order on the dissolution of marriage and related matters, such as division of marital assets and child custody. A court order for a divorce, made under the authority of law, becomes fully enforceable as a divorce decree. The divorce decree includes the date of final dissolution of the marriage and the court ruling on each related matter.

Entry of Decree

The court enters a divorce decree based on a settlement agreement negotiated by the parties and approved by the court or based on the judge's final resolution of each disputed issue presented at trial. The judge signs the court order, which includes the final date of dissolution of the marriage and how she ruled on each issue. An attorney or self-represented party submits the signed judgment, with approved attachments, and a notice of entry of judgment form to the court clerk's office. If all of the applicable documents are filed properly, in accordance with court rules, the court enters the judgment and notice of entry of judgment. The court sends a copy to each party to notify them that the judgment was entered.

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Modifying a Decree

Once the court enters the divorce decree and notifies both parties of the action, the divorce decree is final. The divorce decree terminates the marriage and orders the division of all marital assets. It also defines the terms of the child custody, child support and spousal support. Some issues in a divorce decree can be modified, but others cannot. The division of assets outlined in the divorce decree generally cannot be modified, unless requested in a timely manner or under extreme circumstances. However, child custody, child support and spousal support can often be modified with a request for an order to modify custody or support. Modifications generally require both parties to return to court.

Enforceability of the Decree

The divorce decree legally binds both parties to the keep the terms of the divorce. The spouses cannot modify the terms of the divorce stated in the decree individually, collaboratively or through their lawyers. The court approved each term and possesses the authority to enforce each term. If a spouse violates the terms of the divorce decree, the other spouse can return to court to bring the issue before the judge. Judges impose penalties for violations, which include holding the violating spouse in civil contempt of court. Judges also order modifications due to violations. For instance, if one spouse continuously violates the terms set out in the divorce decree regarding parenting time, a judge can modify parenting time based on the best interests of the child.

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References

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A divorce typically includes four important legal dates: the date of separation from the other spouse, the date of filing the petition at the courthouse, the date the judge signs the judgment, and the date the court clerk enters the judgment into the court record and provides notice of its entry to both parties. Even after all of these events take place, some states apply a waiting period before the divorce is final -- sometimes six months later.

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A divorce decree, the final order from the court that officially ended the marriage, is needed for various reasons, such as to verify the divorce terms and to prove the divorce is final. Losing the original divorce decree makes proving the divorce terms or end of the marriage more difficult. Either former spouse has the right to get a certified — or official — copy of the divorce decree from the California county superior court that issued the decree.

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