Divorce Decree vs. Divorce Certificate: What's the Difference?

A divorce decree is the final court document that formally ends your marriage. You can use a decree or a divorce certificate to prove you’re divorced.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School
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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.

What Is a Divorce Decree?

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.

What's Included in a Divorce Decree?

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:

  • each spouse's identifying information, including names, addresses, and birthdates
  • identifying information for any minor children (and sometimes adult children, if relevant)
  • the court's address and telephone number
  • information about any attorneys involved in the case
  • the case number
  • the official end date of the marriage
  • the judge's name
  • a statement changing one of the spouse's last names (if requested as part of the divorce), and
  • a declaration that the divorce is final.

Your decree might also include specific orders regarding:

  • property allocation
  • debt division
  • child custody and parenting time
  • child support
  • alimony (spousal support or maintenance)
  • retirement account division (including a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) if necessary), and
  • any other case-related issues.

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.

What Will I Use My Divorce Decree For?

The primary purpose of your divorce decree is to finalize your divorce. Beyond that, you can use the document as:

  • A road map of what you need to do after divorce. Your decree might include orders that you have to follow through on. For example, if your decree requires you to refinance a vehicle loan into your name within 30-days after your divorce, you must work diligently to find financing. If you run into problems meeting the decree's requirements, you can speak to your spouse to resolve your issue or ask the court for guidance.
  • An enforcement tool. Both spouses must comply with any orders made in the divorce decree, including time-sensitive matters. If your ex-spouse is not following the terms of the decree, you can file a motion asking the court to enforce it, and the court will set a date for a hearing.
  • Proof of your divorce. Sometimes, you'll need to provide evidence that your marriage is ended in order to wrap up loose ends from your marriage. For example, you might have to prove you are no longer married in order to close a joint bank account, update a title to a vehicle, or revise the terms of your life insurance or other estate planning documents.
  • A reference document. When you have a question about, or disagree with your spouse about, issues such as custody, parenting time, child support, or alimony, you can turn to the decree for guidance.

When Will I Receive My Decree? Who Issues It?

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 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.

What Is a Divorce Certificate?

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:

  • apply for a name change on important documents like driver's licenses and passports
  • show proof of the divorce when needed (for example, to creditors), and
  • apply for a marriage certificate.

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.

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