Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Certificate—What's the Difference?

Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Certificate—What's the Difference?

by Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq., November 2017

After a divorce, you might be confused about some of the divorce documents. Each one of the divorce papers serves a different purpose. You get your "divorce decree" from court, but a "divorce certificate" is not issued by a court.

Divorce Decree

A divorce decree is a court document that is a final judgment from divorce court. It contains information about your case, including spousal support, child support, custody, visitation, property division, and other information. Most divorce decrees are thorough and contain all of the agreed-upon information in your case, such as who is responsible for getting life and health insurance, if the wife can take her maiden name again, and how you will divide your debt.

Only a court can issue a divorce decree. You receive it at the end of your case. If your case went to trial, your divorce decree will indicate the terms of the judge's decision and will act as a judgment that both parties must obey.

If you didn't go to trial but settled your case instead, the divorce decree will contain the terms of the settlement. The decree still acts as a final judgment, but you and your former spouse have decided upon the terms of your own divorce without the court's input. Settling your case takes the decision out of the hands of the judge so long as the decision is not outrageous or one-sided. If it's one-sided, the judge will usually intervene to help you work out the terms of your settlement.

Where to Get a Copy of Your Divorce Decree

If you want a certified copy of your divorce decree months or years after your divorce, you can usually get it at the courthouse in the court clerk's office. Some states have divorce decrees in the county clerk's office, so you will need to check with your state. Usually only people who were parties in the divorce, or their lawyers, can pick up the decree.

What Happens After You Get Your Divorce Decree?

After you receive your divorce decree, you'll want to make sure you're obeying the decree and that your former spouse is, too. For example, your former spouse has obligations created by the decree, such as paying spousal support, child support, or obtaining insurance policies. You'll need to make sure your former spouse is complying with the decree.

Additionally, if your former spouse must pay all or part of the marital debt, you'll want to make sure your ex is doing that; otherwise, you could still be held responsible for the debt.

After you get your divorce decree, make sure you:

  • Read the decree for accuracy
  • Ask your attorney if you have any questions
  • File an appeal immediately if you're not happy with the judge's decision after a trial
  • Change your will
  • Change beneficiaries on your insurance policies
  • Update emergency contacts for your child's school
  • Change your power of attorney
  • Put savings and checking accounts in your name only
  • Cancel or change credit cards
  • Bring your former spouse back to court if the former spouse is violating the decree
  • Bring the case back to court if you need to change spousal or child support later on

Divorce Certificate

A divorce certificate is a completely different document from a divorce decree. A certificate is not prepared by a court. Instead, your state's health department or bureau of vital statistics issues the certificate. This is usually the same place where you get your birth certificate.

Unlike a lengthy divorce decree, a divorce certificate is a simple document that shows:

  • You are divorced
  • The names of both former spouses
  • The date of the divorce
  • The place of the divorce.

Uses of a Divorce Certificate

A divorce certificate is used for limited purposes, and not all states issue a divorce certificate. You can use it for:

  • Getting a name change
  • Showing proof of divorce without revealing the details of your divorce
  • Getting a travel visa
  • Getting a passport, unless your name change is not on the certificate
  • Inheritance purposes, to show you are single
  • Getting married
  • Anywhere you need to show proof of divorce.