Although both a divorce decree and a divorce certificate can serve as proof of your divorce, there are important differences between the two documents. Here's why having a divorce decree on hand might sometimes be better than having a divorce certificate.
A divorce decree is a court order that officially terminates your marriage. Some states refer to the decree as a "judgment of dissolution," "JOD," or "divorce judgment." It lays out the court's final orders regarding all the issues in your divorce—such as support, property division, and child custody—and both spouses are legally bound to its terms.
The content of your divorce decree depends on your case and the divorce-related issues you encountered during your divorce.
If you and your spouse participated in divorce mediation or otherwise settled your case, the court will incorporate your marital settlement agreement into the divorce decree. Some courts will write the terms of the settlement agreement directly into the decree, while others might attach the agreement to or reference it in the decree.
Although there's no nationwide standard form of divorce decree, some states, such as California and New York, have fill-in-the-blank forms that can be tailored for each individual case. No matter what state you're in, most divorce decrees include:
Your decree might also include specific orders regarding:
Lastly, the divorce decree will include each spouse's signature, the signatures of any attorneys involved, the judge's signature, and the date everyone signed. In some courts, the court clerk will also stamp the final document with an official court seal.
The primary purpose of your divorce decree is to finalize your divorce. Beyond that, you can use the document as:
The court will enter your divorce decree (make it a final judgment) after the judge has approved your marital settlement agreement or decided any unresolved issues. Your divorce is final—meaning you are legally divorced—as of the day the judge signs the decree.
If the court doesn't require you to attend an in-person hearing to finalize your case, the court will likely mail you a final copy of the decree or notify you when you can pick up a copy in person. And, at any point after the decree is entered, you can request a copy from the court clerk. The court will also send a copy of the decree to any lawyer who represented you in your divorce.
If you filed your divorce paperwork online using a service such as DivorceNet's Online Divorce, the service will mail you the decree as soon as the judge signs it.
If you need an additional official copy of your decree in the future, ask the court that issued the decree how to obtain a certified copy. Usually, you will need to make your request in writing, and it's not unusual for courts to charge a small fee for providing a certified copy.
A divorce certificate is not the same as a divorce decree. A divorce certificate is an official document issued by the office that keeps track of vital records in your state (such as the health department or office of vital records). It contains basic identifying information for both spouses and the date and place of the finalized divorce.
The purpose of a divorce certificate is simply to provide proof of a divorce. A divorce certificate is usually a single page—significantly shorter than most divorce decrees. You can use the certificate to:
Not all states issue divorce certificates—to find out if your state offers divorce certificates, contact the state's office of vital records. Most states that provide divorce certificates will require you to make your request for a copy in writing or online using a designated request form, and will charge a small fee for the service. Even if you're able to make a request for your divorce certificate online, the office of vital records will mail you a copy rather than provide an electronic copy.