Family Court: Final Judgment of Divorce
Ending a marriage is not as pleasant as starting one. Unfortunately, statistics show that 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. There are several ways to end a marriage, but they all result in a final judgment. After entry of the final divorce judgment, the divorce is complete.
Getting to the final judgment for dissolution of marriage is a complicated process. Each state has its own requirements for filing for dissolution. Divorcing couples should consult a family law attorney before they file. Even if they filed themselves, they should have a lawyer review the documents before the final judgment.
What Is the Final Judgment?
The final judgment in a divorce proceeding ends the marriage between the couple. The parties are no longer married once the judge signs the settlement agreement. The parties must follow all court orders and agreements in the final judgment.
The only way to change anything in the divorce decree is to return to court and ask the judge to change something in the final order. Family courts are reluctant to change or “set aside" final judgments unless there is a compelling reason.
The Family Court Process
In most jurisdictions, divorce cases are not handled in a single trial. Most family law courts consist of multiple hearings during which the judge, the parties' attorneys, and the couple try to hammer out a settlement that satisfies everyone. Nearly all divorces reach settlement through repeated hearings. In many jurisdictions, the judge orders mediation as part of the process to encourage a neutral exchange of ideas.
Sometimes the parties cannot reach a settlement agreement. Couples sometimes cannot figure out equitable property division or a reasonable solution to issues. The most common problems in contentious divorces include:
- Real estate and property division - It may be a question of who gets the family home, but it can also be a matter of whose name is on the deed and whose is on the mortgage.
- Child custody and child support - In nearly all states, custody and support for minor children is a separate matter from divorce. Judges must place the best interests of the child ahead of the parents' wishes, which may conflict with the couples' demands.
- Marital and separate property - Determining whether property belongs to the marriage or the individual is never easy. It is even worse when couples have joint bank accounts and credit cards and accuse one another of expenses.
The judge may order a trial if the couple cannot or will not agree. Unlike most civil matters, a party in family court does not have an automatic right to a jury trial. Only two states (Georgia and Texas) allow jury trials for dissolution. New York and North Carolina allow jury trials for specific grounds to determine monetary amounts of alimony or support. In all other states, a divorce trial is a bench trial decided by the judge.
Evidence and Arguments
Family court is like any other court, whether the trial is a bench trial or goes to a jury. Attorneys for each spouse will present evidence for their side. Evidence in a divorce proceeding will include:
- Testimony from the spouses - The divorce attorney can question their own client and cross-examine the other party.
- Witness testimony - Depending on the type of case, this may include family, friends, neighbors, or employers. Sometimes trials need expert witnesses such as forensic accountants.
- Documentary evidence - This includes financial statements, bank account information, property deeds, emails, texts, and so on.
If there are allegations of domestic violence, child abuse, or the child being placed in the middle of conflict between their parents, the child may have a guardian ad litem. This is a court-appointed representative (also known as a "best interest attorney" in some states) who acts in the child's interests and appears in court on the child's behalf.
The purpose of a trial is for each party to show the judge why their demand for child custody, parenting time, spousal support, and property division is correct and why the other party's is wrong.
Final Judgment of Divorce
Once the trial is over, the judge issues the divorce judgment, also called the divorce decree. Sometimes the judge will issue the final order in court and task one of the parties' attorneys with creating a written agreement so all parties can confirm the terms.
The final judgment contains everything the parties may have agreed to previously. It also contains everything the judge has ruled on during the trial, including:
- The final division of marital property, assets, debts, and real property
- Child custody, visitation schedule, residence, and school schedule
- Child support order, spousal support, and payment schedule and dates
- In a domestic violence or abuse case, the final judgment will include a restraining order or injunction against the respondent
Once the parties receive the final judgment, the divorce is finally over.
Frequently Asked Questions About Final Judgments
The following are frequently asked questions about final judgments:
Q: Do I Need a Final Judgment With a Summary Dissolution?
Yes. If you and your spouse filed a summary dissolution because you both agreed to walk away, you still need the final judgment. You will receive a copy of the judgment when the judge signs the document.
Q: What Is a Default Judgment? Is It the Same Thing as a Final Judgment?
Yes and no. If one party refuses to answer the Petition for Dissolution or cannot be served the documents, the judge may enter a default judgment in favor of the petitioner. A default judgment for divorce terminates the marriage, but the absent spouse may still ask to set aside the judgment.
Q: I Got a Summary Divorce a Few Years Ago, and Now I'm Getting Remarried. The Court Says It Has No Record of My Divorce! What Do I Do?
One of the hazards of do-it-yourself law is failing to get legal advice before you finish. The last document you need to complete a divorce is the entry of judgment. When the judge signs the final judgment, the court clerk sends you and your former spouse a copy along with a notice of entry of judgment, telling you the judgment was entered into the record. With a DIY divorce, you have to complete the entry of judgment and notice of entry, which is easy to overlook.
The courts understand this. You can see a divorce lawyer and ask them to file a nunc pro tunc request. “Nunc pro tunc" means “now for then." It is a request for the court to set your marital status to 'single' on the final hearing date. The courts realize most people do not intend to be serial bigamists, so as long as it was an honest mistake, you should be fine.
Questions About Family Court and Final Judgments? Talk to a Lawyer
Everyone wants their marriage to last forever, but not all marriages get a happily ever after. If your marriage must end, you can work for an amicable settlement and peaceful resolution to your final judgment. You can contact an experienced family law attorney in your area to help you with the divorce process.
Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?
- You may not need an attorney for a simple divorce with uncontested issues
- Legal advice is critical to protect your interests in a contested divorce
- Divorce lawyers can help secure fair custody/visitation, support, and property division
An attorney is a skilled advocate during negotiations and court proceedings. Many attorneys offer free consultations.
Don't Forget About Estate Planning
Divorce is an ideal time to review your beneficiary designations on life insurance, bank accounts, and retirement accounts. You need to change your estate planning forms to reflect any new choices about your personal representative and beneficiaries. You can change your power of attorney if you named your ex-spouse as your agent. Also, change your health care directive to remove them from making your health care decisions.