What Is a Divorce Decree and what is the Effect of Finalizing a Divorce?

A divorce decree, also commonly referred to as either a final judgment of divorce or a decree of dissolution, is the court’s final divorce order. A divorce decree’s effect is to finalize the divorce process for the spouses and declare that the spouses are no longer married. The actual legal effect of a divorce decree is difficult to explain succinctly, however, both because every divorce is different and because a divorce has many different consequences. This article seeks to better explain how divorce decrees function and what effects they have.

The Procedure for Granting a Divorce Decree

While state laws differ on divorce decrees and final divorce rulings, all states have similar procedural processes leading up to the awarding of a divorce decree. A divorce lawsuit is normally commenced by the filing of either separate or joint divorce pleadings in court.

If the proper filing procedures are followed, the court will set a date for a divorce judge to hear the divorce case. Where a divorce is contested, all states will require the spouses to attend at least one hearing regarding the divorce (contested divorces tend to result in multiple different rounds of pleadings and motions, however). In an uncontested divorce case, most states still require the spouses to attend a hearing; however, in some states, uncontested divorce decrees may be granted by a judge out of court.

Regardless of whether the parties to the divorce are asked to attend hearings or if the uncontested divorce lawsuit is taken up by a judge out of court, the judge will eventually make a ruling on the divorce. One of three results will occur. First, the court could dismiss the divorce lawsuit. Divorce lawsuits are normally dismissed either because they are incorrectly filed or because the parties were able to resolve their differences and wish to remain married. Second, the court could hold the case under advisement for the presentation of additional evidence at a subsequent hearing. Finally, the court may grant a decree of divorce.

The Effect of a Decree of Divorce

The immediate effect of a divorce decree is that the parties to the divorce lawsuit are no longer married. This means that either spouse can choose to lawfully remarry without violating bigamy laws and may have extramarital relations without those relationships being technically considered adultery. Divorce also has tax consequences, as divorced spouses may no longer file jointly and child tax credits must be assigned to one spouse or another.

Relief Granted Incidental to a Divorce

When granting a divorce decree, the court also normally grants other forms on incidental relief such as spousal support, child support, child custody, and visitation. Spousal support, often known as alimony or maintenance, is an amount of money payable by one spouse to assist a spouse that was financially dependent during marriage. Child custody, child support, and visitation, are all issues incident to sharing and caring for a child who is involved in the divorce process.

The equitable division of marital property and debts also generally occurs upon the granting of a divorce decree. Property division includes the assignment of assets (such as the marital home, vehicles, and often pets) and debts between the spouses. States differ on their approaches to property distribution and are subdivided into separate and communal property states.

In separate property states, property is first pre-determined to be either separate property or marital property. Separate property usually consists of property acquired by each spouse before the marriage and property acquired by solely one spouse during the marriage such as a gift or an inheritance. Marital property is generally any property acquired during the marriage that belonged to both spouses or any separate property that has become so comingled with other assets, such as in a bank account, that it is indistinguishable from marital property. At distribution, separate property will be assigned to the spouse who owns it and marital property will be distributed.

In communal property states, all property is generally considered to be marital property subject to distribution. In many communal property states, however, certain property may be set aside as separate property, but only where the spouses make an explicit and conscious effort to keep that particular property separated.

Bifurcation of Divorce Decrees

While the court normally grants all divorce-related relief all at once, that is not always the case. In some cases a court may, on the motion of the parties, engage in a bifurcation of these incidental issues. Bifurcation simply means that the court will separately examine two issues that it would normally consider together.

In a bifurcated divorce, the judge will normally grant a divorce first and then hold over consideration of spousal support and other related considerations for another time. Spouses seeking an immediate divorce so that either spouse may remarry as soon as possible will want to request bifurcation.

If you have recently received a divorce and have been awarded a divorce decree or if you are currently involved in a divorce lawsuit, you can find more information about divorce decrees by consulting with a local family law attorney. In general, most experienced family law attorneys will be able to answer any questions that you have about the divorce process and procedure, and are a good resource to utilize in helping you through the divorce.