The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Divorce Decree

What is a divorce decree?

A divorce decree is a formal order of the court dissolving a marriage.  A divorce decree applies both to people with or without children.

Couples divorcing may co-create a divorce decree through a mediation process, or if the case goes to trial, the family court may issue a judgement that provides the outline of the divorce decree. In either case, a divorce decree becomes legally binding once a judge signs and dates it.

What goes into a divorce decree?

A divorce decree will typically cover the following areas: 

Alimony or spousal support is paid by one party to the other if one of the parties is unable to support themselves after the marriage.  A typical scenario might be if one spouse worked while the other remained at home with the children.  Because the stay-at-home parent didn't work, their skills to be competitive in the workplace may be diminished, and spousal support may be ordered to bring that person up to a higher standard-of-living following the divorce.

Property division.
When a couple owns assets, such as real estate, vehicles, or investment accounts, those assets must be allocated to each person as the marriage dissolves.  The divorce decree will specify how these assets should be allocated.

Child Custody
If the divorcing couple has children, the divorce decree will specify physical custody, legal custody, and other child custody issues.

Visitation or parenting time
If child custody is not joint physical custody, then one parent will be the custodial parent, and the other parent will be the noncustodial parent.  The noncustodial parent will typically get parenting time (visitation), and the divorce decree should explain the details of how the parenting time will be scheduled.

Child support
Child support is a payment from one parent to the other, with the sole purpose of providing for the child's needs.  If child support is ordered, it should be explained in detail in the divorce decree.  Changes in income, changes in healthcare costs, changes in child-care costs, and other changes associated with the cost of raising children, may be grounds to modify a divorce decree.

When a divorced couple has children, altering the divorce decree becomes much more common, and much more important.  The divorce decree may be periodically amended by adding, deleting, or changing seemingly unimportant details, such as rules regarding drinking or smoking around children, limits to television time, rules for dating within the children's presence, limits on internet time, who will pay for college tuition, and various other matters.  Even if these items seem unimportant, conflict can result when misunderstandings surrounding the divorce decree arise.

How can you modify your divorce decree?

An existing divorce decree may be modified, depending on circumstances.  There are two possible scenarios that divorced couples could find themselves, when addressing the issue of making a modification to a divorce decree: they can be in agreement, or they can be in conflict.

If the parties are amicable, it is best to avoid going to court as much as possible.  If they can reach a mutual agreement about how best to modify the divorce decree together, significant legal costs can be averted.   This often happens in the case of divorced parents, if they enjoy a collaborative relationship and are able to make appropriate or necessary changes, such as modifying a visitation schedule, as the needs of the divorced family unit changes. 

When not amicable, a divorce decree may still be modified; however, significant legal fees may result.  Aspects of the divorce can be challenged in court, which typically happens more often when children are involved.  Litigating over the amount of child support is a very common, yet counterprodctive, family court issue.  Often, the litigation costs may approach or exceed the child support savings.

What are issues associated with modifiying a divorce decree?

The rules pertaining to divorce differ from state-to-state.  Thus, it is strongly recommended for people seeking to modify their divorce decree, to hire an attorney in the county where jurisdiction is located.  An attorney in the applicable jurisdiction will know the laws specific to that state, and they will be familiar with the judges in that particular county.

There may be restrictions on what may be able to be modified; some states only permit changes in visitation schedule once per year, and other states require that income must change greater than ten percent.  It is advisable to check the state-specific laws, before spending money on a family law attorney.

While many changes in circumstances can be reason for divorced couples to modify their divorce decree, it is a good idea to contemplate the ramifications of attempting to make those changes before actually doing so.  One of the most commonly litigated issues in family court is child support.  The sad reality is that by litigating child support, money that could have been used on behalf of the children, instead goes to family law attorneys.  Mediation may help make such modifications without the high litigation fees.

An attorney can help fill out appropriate forms for modifying a divorce decree, but if an attorney is not used, the appropriate forms may be obtained from the clerk of court where the divorce has been filed.

Should a divorce decree be modified after a lifestyle change?

Not making official changes to the divorce decree can cause issues, as well.  Situational changes that last for more than six months may become the status quo; however, if a prior court order exists, and the divorce decree is not modified, one party might go back to lifestyle described in the original court order, without consent of the other party.

The following is an actual example of what can happen if a divorce decree is not modified after a significant lifestyle change.  

Assume two divorced parents have an original court order with a visitation schedule that provides parenting time to the noncustodial parent every other weekend.  This is due to a circumstance where the parents live in different states, several hours from one another.  After some time, the custodial parent moves close to the noncustodial parent, and they verbally agree to joint custody, so the children are not subjected to the long-distance parenting issues.  They live under this unofficial arrangement for two years.  If the divorce decree is not modified during this period of time, the custodial parent might be able to simply take the children out-of-state without the consent of the other party, and the original court order may still be applicable.  Thus, it is vitally important that when a situation changes, modifications to the divorce decree be considered, as well.

How will family courts rule on changes to a divorce decree?

Courts are bound by the best interests of child standard; however, courts still vary philosophically.  It ultimately depends on the judge's interpretation of a particular argument. The county or jurisdiction where the litigation occurs becomes an extremely important factor.

An attorney will help file a motion to modify the divorce decree, have your ex partner or spouse notified of the court hearing, and prepare to argue the action or complaint in court, but how the family court will decide is virtually impossible to predict.

Can mediation be used to modify a divorce decree for divorced parents?

Mediation is a tool where both parties discuss and negotiate their issues in the presence of a mediator.  Mediation does not mean that the negotiations are binding, until a new court order is created and signed by a judge.  Mediation is simply a way to reduce conflict during discussions, so that both parties can negotiate in good faith.

The advantage of mediation is that it can save a significant amount of money, time, and emotional pain. Conversely, when ex spouses go to court to litigate changes in a divorce decree, the experience is typically expensive and emotionally draining. Court proceedings can drag on for a significant and indefinite period of time.  Furthermore, attorneys may strategically attempt to make the other party look bad, which can escalate conflict, make future collaboration even more difficult, and lead to further litigation.

What are some other considerations that might be a good idea to include in a divorce decree?

Car insurance for children as they begin to drive
When children are old enough to drive,  many insurance companies will increase premiums. Car insurance for teenagers can be very expensive.  It is a good idea to address this issue in the divorce decree, so that the issue won't lead to conflict when it arises.

Division of credit card debt
While expenses such as credit card debt may be addressed in a divorce decree, it is also important to designate who is responsible for which credit card, and to state the applicable account numbers to avoid confusion.  Furthermore, the decree can be provided to a credit card company to show who is responsible for payment if needed.

Miscellaneous expenses on the children's behalf
Each parent is likely to confront expenses for birthday parities, Christmas gifts, clothing, and other items that can be costly.  It is important to decide if they will be covered by child support or not.  If not, it is be a good idea to include in the  divorce decree, how these other expenses will be shared.

Expenses for braces
Braces are not covered under medical insurance, as they are considered cosmetic.  It is advisable to address in the final divorce decree how future expenses toward braces will be paid for.  If they will be shared, the divorce decree may detail how much each parent will be expected to pay for braces.

College tuition
Most family courts deem college as an optional expense, and therefore, they will not order that either parent be responsible for tuition.  Because of this fact, most divorced parents do not save adequately for their children's college tuition.  By addressing the issue in the divorce decree, divorced parents may discuss details of how to save, which may include setting up and contributing to a 529 plan.

Other issues that may lead to conflict
Every divorce is different.  Every party that gets divorced should contemplate the issues that may arise in the future, and consider putting solutions to those issues in the divorce decree, before they become problematic.  The goal of the divorce decree is reduce conflict in the future.


Sample Divorce Decree
This is a sample of what an actual divorce decree looks like.
Get a copy of your divorce decree
Write or go to the vital statistics office in the state or area where the divorce occurred to get a copy of your divorce decree.

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