Divorce can be a long, arduous process. Exes often spend months going back and forth. You must painstakingly untangle shared lives, deal with legal and logistical hurdles, and prepare to move forward. At the end of it all, once all is said and done, you walk away with your final divorce decree in your hands.
What is a Divorce Decree?
A divorce decree represents the court’s final ruling on the matter at hand.
On a practical level, it grants the dissolution of marriage and lays out the basic information regarding the split. This includes the case number, date of divorce, and responsibilities of each party.
What’s In A Divorce Decree?
This document covers a number of topics, but what exactly should you expect to see in your divorce decree?
Division Of Property
Different states handle the division of property in different ways. When it comes to splitting up shared assets in a divorce, Washington follows community property guidelines. As a concept, this is fairly straightforward.
All property acquired during the course of your marriage, even items held in one individual’s name, belongs equally to both parties. In a legal sense. When it comes to divorce, the court aims to divide this property in an equitable fashion.
This doesn’t mean you split everything equally between the two of you. In community property states, the division of assets will be such that both parties come out on a relatively even footing.
Spouses can choose to work with each other to come to an arrangement, enlist the aid of mediators, or allow the court to determine how to break up any assets. Whatever path you take, both sides must agree to the settlement and this forms a key part of the divorce decree.
Related Reading: High Asset Divorce
Division Of Debt
Much like property, possessions, and assets accrued during a marriage are viewed as community property, so, too, is debt. Finalizing a divorce doesn’t change any financial obligations you incurred while married.
For example, if you have a mortgage, car loan, or other shared debt in your name, you remain responsible for that debt.
If you owe substantial amounts, during the settlement negotiations you and your spouse must decide who remains responsible for what. Your divorce decree outlines these obligations.
But just because the decree orders your ex to handle a specific debt doesn’t mean they always do. In a perfect world, yes, but we don’t live in a perfect world.
If they miss payments, it can negatively impact you and your credit. You may even wind up being sent to collections.
In these situations, agreements often include the requirement that your ex refinances a loan to remove your name. Still, it may be in your best financial interest to follow up and make sure this actually happens.
Related Reading: Rebuilding Finances and Protecting Your Credit Score After a Divorce
Custody And Visitation
When a split involves minor children, divorce proceedings often become even more heated and contentious. In these cases, a big part of the process will be to determine which parent has primary physical custody, establish a schedule moving forward, and create a parenting plan.
Part of this arrangement includes visitation. The specifics will have to be worked out between you and your spouse or be ruled on by the court. Though many parents work diligently to establish visitation and remain a part of their children’s lives, it’s easy to let them get trampled on later.
Even after the divorce decree, if your ex pushes at boundaries and violates the agreement, you may have to take measures to enforce your parental rights.
If children figure into your divorce, child support usually becomes one of the biggest pieces of your financial puzzle moving forward. Whether you make or receive these payments depends on the custody arrangement.
The parent with the most overnights usually gets the money. Child support can however be awarded in cases of 50/50 shared custody. Most often this boils down to financial need and the ability to pay.
Child support provides for the continuing care of your kids following a divorce. They cover everything from regular necessities, like food, shelter, and medical care, to education and beyond. If this is a part of your separation, your divorce decree should include the specifics of child support. This includes the amount, who pays, how to make or receive payments, and more.
Related Reading: Frequently Asked Child Support Questions Answered
Though not awarded in every case, spousal support often pops up in divorce.
If it does, it also appears in your divorce decree. Following the dissolution of a marriage, these payments, commonly called alimony, help spouses meet any financial needs.
Not as formulaic as child support, a number of factors impact the amount. This includes the age and health of both parties, the length of the marriage, future earning potential, and more.
Depending on the situation, spousal support can be short-term and temporary or continue indefinitely. The court may order alimony for a brief time to help one spouse transition back to single life or even obtain training to reenter the workforce.
If one party contributed significantly to the employment prospects of the other, or if a great divide in earning potential exists, alimony may also be assigned.
In cases of continuing financial need, lingering health issues, and more, the court often orders spousal support indefinitely.
Related Reading: How Is Spousal Support Calculated?
Before You Sign Your Divorce Decree
In reality, if you paid attention during the process, you shouldn’t find any surprises in your divorce decree.
Whether you worked with your spouse, with attorneys, used mediation, or allowed the court to rule, these are all terms to which you previously agreed.
Still, make sure to give the document a close look. Read it thoroughly before you sign and send it to the judge to be finalized. You’ll want to examine it for any mistakes, unclear language, or anything that has changed. Things like this need to be taken care of before signing.
After the divorce decree is official, making changes, even in the case of errors, gets tricky and expensive.
As with most legal matters, you may want to enlist the services of a skilled divorce lawyer. Even if you handled everything yourself, it never hurts to have an experienced professional double-check the work. A few hundred dollars now often saves you money, time, and headaches down the road.
Related Reading: Can You Protect Your Business in Divorce?
Questions From The Radio
One of our founding partners, Rick Jones, has a regular guest spot on the Danny Bonaduce and Sarah Morning Show. On the air, he takes family law questions from listeners, including one related to this topic.
CALLER: “My wife and I filed a petition for divorce back in December last year. We both agreed on the division of property, we signed together, we filed, and then once the 90 days were up, she refused to sign the paperwork to finalize the find of facts and dissolution papers.
“Since she already signed the initial papers and agreed to the divorce and now she’s changing her mind, what are my options?”
Listen to the Conversation Below:
Rick: “A couple of things. The first thing I would say is that filing the initial papers doesn’t mean the agreement’s binding. That’s why Washington State has that 90-day waiting period. That’s why you couldn’t get it done in December when you filed. So, she has that right within 90 days to back out.
“For her to back out though, out of that tentative agreement, there are some steps she needs to follow. For example, she would have needed to do what’s called a ‘response to the petition.’ That basically says to the court, ‘He filed, and she needs to [respond]. If she hasn’t done that, you can do what’s called a motion for default.’
“You can basically say, ‘Look, more than 90 days have elapsed, she’s obviously been served with the documents, therefore I’m asking for this case to be closed on the terms of our original petition.’
“The problem with that is that its kind of like a tennis match. Yes, you do that motion, but she’s going to respond and say, ‘No wait, I’m here.’ The courts are going to be very liberal about giving somebody their opportunity to have a day in court.
“Unfortunately, you thought you had an agreement in December. You’re really like most everybody else in which you’ve got a divorce filed, now you need to reach an agreement with her.”
Related Reading: Preparing for a Divorce Consultation