A divorce decree is the final step in the court proceeding for your divorce. It contains important information about the court's decision. A divorce decree is not the same thing as a divorce certificate, and the two documents have different purposes.
The divorce certificate is issued by your state for record-keeping purposes, as opposed to the divorce decree, meaning a final, enforceable order by the court that you and your spouse must follow. It resolves all of the issues that were part of your divorce.
When is a divorce decree issued?
A divorce case can drag on for months or even years, so finally getting to the end of the process is a long-awaited step. After you have had your trial, or after you and your spouse have agreed on and submitted a settlement to the court, the court makes a final decision.
If you have a trial, the judge weighs all of the evidence and testimony and makes decisions related to granting the divorce: custody, alimony, child support, and property division. All of these decisions are written out in the divorce decree.
The decree is a binding legal court order that says what you and your spouse must do moving forward.
If you settle your case, your settlement is submitted to the court in writing or it is spoken into the record at the courtroom. The judge then reviews what you have agreed on and decides if it is fair and in accordance with the law. If so, the court issues a decree that includes all the terms of your settlement. This becomes a binding court order.
When is a divorce final?
Your divorce is final on the day the court signs the divorce decree. You normally will receive it a few days later, since it is sent to your attorney, who will then send you a copy. You are legally divorced as of the date the decree is signed. This means you become a single person on that date because your marriage is legally over.
What is a divorce certificate?
It can be confusing to understand the differences between a divorce decree versus a divorce certificate.
A divorce decree is the complete court order ending your marriage, with all the details about how property is divided, how you will share time with your children, and what, if any, child support is granted. It also states why the marriage is being dissolved. If there are any problems in the future with your ex not following the court order, you will refer to the decree, since it states what each is required to do. If there is noncompliance, you can go back to court to enforce the terms of the decree.
A divorce certificate is not a court document. It is a document issued by your state for record-keeping purposes. It includes the parties' names and says when and where the divorce was granted. It does not include the myriad other personal details included in a divorce decree. This certificate is used in much the same way you would use a birth certificate or marriage certificate, in the event that you need to prove you are divorced from someone.
If you seek to change your name—on your driver's license, or with Social Security—after the divorce, you may be asked to show a portion of the divorce decree to confirm you have authorization for the name change. While the divorce certificate is generally accepted as proof that you're divorced, the name change itself is ordered in the divorce decree; the name change may not appear on the certificate.
If you need to provide proof that the divorce occurred, for any reason other than a name change, then showing the divorce certificate should be sufficient.
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