Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Certificate: What are They and Why You Need Them

How to Get Your Divorce Decree

With all the different divorce documents floating around, it can be hard to know what’s most important.

Two documents you will surely need to provide at some point following your divorce are your divorce decree and your divorce certificate.

While they sound similar, they’re actually quite different in a number of respects.

Let’s dive in.

  • What is a divorce decree
  • What does a divorce decree look like
  • Where to get a copy of your divorce decree
  • What happens after a decree is issued
  • What is a divorce certificate
  • How to get a divorce certificate

What is a divorce decree?

A divorce decree is the official document issued by the court that formally ends your marriage. The decree contains the key facts about your case and the terms of the judge’s orders – including child custody and visitation, alimony, child support, division of assets, and so forth.

A divorce decree is referred to as a judgment in some states.

If you and your spouse reached an agreement outside of court, then the divorce decree would include the terms of your settlement agreement (instead of court orders).

In some cases, the actual agreement may be spelled out in a separate document called a Marital Settlement Agreement.

Either way, the divorce decree is signed by the judge and filed at your county’s courthouse.

What does a divorce decree look like?

Every state has their own divorce forms. That means that the divorce decree for each state will look somewhat different. They may even vary a bit from county to county.

Here is an example of the judgment of dissolution form (aka divorce decree) in California:

california divorce decree

And here is a Georgia divorce decree:

georgia divorce decree

Where do you get a copy of your divorce decree?

A certified copy of a divorce decree is provided by the courts, but if you lose the document, you should be able to complete some paperwork and submit it to the civil court where your divorce took place, as long as you are one of the parties to the divorce.

If you were not a party to the divorce, you may need notarized permission from one of the parties that grants you permission to access the decree.  State laws require that courts must keep decrees on file for anywhere from 7 to 10 years.

What happens after a divorce decree is issued?

After a judgment has been issued, you and your spouse are legally free to marry another person.

Your divorce decree is a legally binding document. That means if you or your former spouse does not follow the terms set forth in the divorce decree, you can take legal action to enforce the agreement.

Okay, now you know that you have an enforceable agreement. What should you do next?

The first thing that I always recommend is summarizing the key terms. This way you don’t have to sift through the agreement later on and try to decipher the legalese.

Make a list of any key dates, alimony and child support, accounts that need to be closed, etc.

Now that you have that behind you, there are a number of things you should do:

  • Scan and save an electronic copy
  • Update beneficiary designations for life insurance policies and retirement accounts
  • Update your estate planning documents (will, trusts, advanced medical directives, power of attorney)
  • Close joint credit cards or remove your spouse as an authorized user
  • Close joint bank accounts (or retitle them in your name)
  • Update the title of vehicles
  • Divide investment accounts or retirement accounts. Be sure to get a QDRO to split 401k’s, 403b plans, and pensions.
  • (use a QDRO for 401k’s, pensions, etc.)
  • Make any required payments (alimony, child support, property settlement payment)

Some of the financial institutions will want a copy of your divorce decree to divide these accounts. Don’t be surprised if there are other company forms that they have you complete as well.

Be sure to carve off some time to deal with these administrative details. You don’t want to procrastinate – it could come to bite you in more ways than one.

What is a divorce certificate?

A divorce certificate, also known as proof of divorce, is much less detailed than a decree and only provides minimal information such as the names of the two spouses and the date and place a divorce was granted, but typically no other information.

In many cases, rather than having to produce a detailed decree, a divorce certificate may meet the requirements for a variety of legal purposes.  It is most commonly used when someone wants to change their name or they want to get remarried.

Here’s an example of what a certificate of divorce looks like:

divorce certificate sample

How to get your divorce certificate

A divorce certificate is not a court document.  It is issued by each state for record-keeping purposes.  State laws vary regarding who can access a divorce certificate, other than spouses and their attorneys.

The National Center for Health Statistics keeps a contact list for all 50 U.S. states and territories that provides contact information not only for where to get divorce decrees and divorce certificates, but also which agencies to contact for birth, death and marriage certificates as well.  You can access the page “Where to Write for Vital Records” here.

In addition, a quick online search will provide you with many options of companies that can assist you in securing both divorce decrees and certificates of divorce.

Looking for more divorce tips? Here are a few of our favorite resources:

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