The Final Divorce Decree

Just what is a final divorce decree and when does it become effective? We get a lot of questions from women wondering when their divorce will be final or if an old divorce petition was ever finalized. That’s understandable because of the numerous steps in the divorce process. Even if you’ve reached a settlement and agree on everything, it still needs to be approved by the court.

Final divorce judgement, decree and order

For a divorce to be finalized, it must first be approved and signed by a judge. If it’s approved by the judge, a court order (judgment) will be issued outlining the details of the divorce, including the case number, names of the parties, the settlement agreement, and the specifics of support and child custody. This court order terminates the marriage and becomes an enforceable divorce decree once it's filed with the court clerk.

It’s important to note that it can take a while for a divorce judgment to be signed by a judge due to back-logged court dockets. Also, some states also have a waiting period before a judge approves and signs the judgment to allow for appeals.

Even after a judge signs the order, the divorce is not actually finalized until it the court clerk enters the judgment into court records. The documents will be date stamped and copies will be mailed to each party (or the lawyers representing the parties). The effective date of divorce will be the date entered by the court clerk, unless your state has a waiting period.

After everything is over, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of your final divorce decree. First of all, it’s a court order. If there are conditions of your settlement agreement which need to be met, it’s a good idea to keep a copy on file in case you need to file for enforcement or modification later on.

You may also need it to legally change your name, apply for a mortgage, remarry in some states,  or apply for social security later on. If by chance you no longer have a copy of your divorce decree, you can request a copy from the court where the divorce was finalized.

This overview outlines the basics of the final divorce decree. Below you will find answers to other questions that further explain what to expect.

Questions about the final divorce decree

Can a divorce be finalized even if the divorce process was never completed?

Amanda's Question: My ex and I separated 8 years ago. We started the divorce process, but recently I found out it was never finalized. Does the divorce eventually become final after a certain amount of time?

Brette's Answer: Not unless there is a judgment of divorce issued, which does not happen unless the parties move it along to that stage. Your case has likely been dismissed for inaction and you will need to re-file.

Am I married or divorced if I didn't file the divorce decree?

Madge's Question: If I filed for a divorce and have all the other papers, but did not file the divorce decree, am I still married or divorced?

Brette's Answer: You are still legally married. Divorces are not final until the decree is signed and entered by the court.

The mediator says the divorce is finished but the court says otherwise.

Rebecca's Question: My husband and I were ordered to do parenting classes by Jan 4th. He didn't complete his. We also went through a mediator to separate property. I did get papers from the mediator about the divorce being finished as of October, but then also got papers from the court stating it won't be final until the classes are completed. Are we still married?

Brette's Answer: You're not divorced until you have your divorce decree from the court.

Who writes the final divorce decree?

Penny's Question: My final divorce decree stated that all child support would cease in October of last year. My attorney said "I've never seen anything like this before. I haven't read this divorce decree and didn't write it". Who DOES write them, if not the attorneys involved?

Brette's Answer: Usually the language is prepared by the attorneys in the case and approved by the court. Sometimes the court will prepare it.

What is the date of entry for the final decree?

Donna's Question: Is the date of entry of the final decree when the judge signed the decree or when the decree was filed into the courts?

Brette: You should consult with your attorney or call the court clerk to get a clear answer on how your state interprets this. Generally, entry means filing, but you do need to check to be sure.

Official date of divorce

Denise's Question: I filed for a Summary Dissolution, and filed the final judgment six months later. Which date is the official divorce date, the date that I filed or the date that the court entered the judgment?

Brette's Answer: In most cases, the date of dissolution is the date of the final judgment entered by the court. However, a court can indicate a different date in the judgment if it chooses.

Will I get a copy of my decree immediately after the final hearing?

A's Question: Once I have attended my divorce hearing and it is finalized, will I get a copy of my divorce decree immediately so that I can complete the steps that same day to change my last name back to my maiden name as well as making other necessary changes (driver’s license, credit cards, bank account, etc.)?

Brette's Answer: It could take up to a month to get it in the mail depending on where you live and what the court delays are like in your area.

Where does the court send a copy of the finalized divorce?

Heather's Question: Who is responsible for providing you with the final divorce papers? It was my understanding that the lawyer will give you copies of the signed and finalized divorce paperwork when everything is finished.

Brette's Answer: Documents that are signed by the court are sent out by the court, but if you are represented by an attorney, your copy goes to the attorney. However, you are entitled to a copy of anything you signed.

How do I get a copy of my Marital Settlement agreement?

Charlotte's Question: How do I get a copy of the Marital Settlement agreement? Is this something that's usually sent to the divorcees after the divorce or do I have to pick it up from the court myself?

Brette's Answer: You should receive a copy of your judgment from the court, which will either attach the settlement or restate everything that is in it.

How do I get a copy of divorce decree?

Danielle's Question: My ex won't give me a copy of the divorce decree. How do I go about getting a copy of my divorce decree?

Brette's Answer: A copy of the decree is supposed to be served on you. Look through your files for information such as the summons, a petition, some piece of paper that will give the case number. If you can't locate this information, it would be in the county the divorce was filed. Divorce files can be searched for by names, so you should ask for that when you contact the county courthouse.

How long does a lawyer keep a copy of the divorce?

Darla's Question: My divorce was finalized last summer, and I just called my lawyer to request a copy of the divorce papers and my file. I was told that they destroyed the file 8 months after the divorce was finalized. How long are they required to keep divorce files?

Brette's Answer: Most attorneys store files for at least seven years. You should contact the Bar grievance committee for your state.

How can I get copies of an old divorce decree?

Linda's Question: We've been married 18 years. Recently his ex-wife from called to see if we had copies of the divorce papers. We do not have a copy either but my husband remembers having them. The attorney is now deceased. What are our recourses to be certain he is divorced?

Brette's Answer: Contact the state vital records department or the court clerk of the court where the case was held. You may also be able to access it online through their web site. Good luck.

Note: To find out where to write or access online vital records, you can also go to and click on the link for your state.

How do I know he's divorced if he doesn't have any divorce papers?

Question: My boyfriend was married before. He went to family court and when he got back home he said the divorce went through but he didn't sign any papers and didn't go with a lawyer. He didn't even bring home any papers proving he got divorced. How do I know he's telling telling the truth?

Brette's Answer: In the U.S. divorces are public record so you could search the records of the county it was in. You don't necessarily have to sign anything if you appear in court. The divorce is not final until the court issues the divorce decree.

At what stage do divorce papers become open to the public?

Kelly's Question: At what stage in the divorce is it made public for people to look up the divorce information on people who have filed or had papers served?

Brette's Answer: It is always public.

Why does my decree need to be registered in the state where the property is located?

Rose's Question: My divorce was granted in Nevada and real property was awarded to me, due to my ex not showing up for court. The property is in Washington State. I'm told that because the properties are in Washington that I have to register my divorce decree in Washington? Why is that?

Brette's Answer: Because that is the only way Washington will know of the decree affecting property in its state.

Can a finalized divorce be retracted?

Sarah's Question: Can you have a finalized divorce dissolved, making it as if it never happened? Or will you have to remarry?

Brette's Answer: If it final and signed, the marriage has legally ended. You can remarry however.

Brette Sember - Legal Expert