What is this Decree and What do I do with it?
by Dorothy Ripka of Cordell & Cordell, P.C.
Your Divorce Decree, as it is called in most states, may well be the most important piece of paper you own. To be frank it is not a piece of paper, usually it is quite the opposite, a large hulking mass of papers filled with legal terms that you are not sure even your attorney understands. Let me first assure you that most likely your attorney did understand all of it.
Hopefully it was all explained to you in detail with the opportunity to ask questions and get clarification on all of it prior to entry with the court. However, due to it’s expansive size, you may still have concerns with what is contained it, and what it all means.
The first step is simple- READ IT. Many of you are reading this, thinking duh, of course. However it is always shocking to an attorney when a client does not read a document, especially one so important as this one. Considering all that the Decree says about you, your children and property, let me just emphasize that you should read it before you sign it and get divorced. However, this will not be the last time that you will need to read it.
Read it actively. By this I mean to highlight your questions or concerns or areas of confusion. What do you not understand? There may errors (including typos) in the document, are there terms in there that you do not think were agreed to? These are the type of questions that you need to ask yourself as you review it.
The next step is to set up an appointment to discuss your findings with your attorney. Most of these should be clarified in person. The most successful meetings with client are ones where you inform your attorney of the subject matter in advance. Give your attorney an opportunity to review your questions in advance, then you have a much greater likelihood of getting informed, well-reasoned responses from your counsel that truly address your concerns.
What if it is too late to ask these questions? What if your divorce is already over and your Decree entered? There is always a possibility that the attorney you used will be agreeable to answering a few no-charge questions for you even after the representation is completed. If not, then you could always set up a meeting with your previous attorney or a new attorney to discuss these issues at the attorneys’ hourly rate. But the goal of your close reading is to not allow yourself to be in the position where you do not fully understand the agreement you have in the Decree. Even if you are unhappy with the terms in the Decree, you have to understand them to be sure they are being followed by you and your former spouse.
Why is this understanding so important? It goes to the root of why this document is so important. This document contains the terms that govern the division of your property. So if your spouse has failed to deliver the property awarded to you, then you can not be aware of their breach, unless you understand their obligation. Similarly this governs the child support obligations as well as your rights and duties relating to your children. You need to understand this document since it dictates how, when, for how long (for example) you are entitled to see your children. The Decree can be confusing as it relates to the holiday schedules. Your close review will ensure that you know what you are entitled to for each holiday in each year.
Be sure to keep a certified copy in a safe place. This document will be necessary if you ever have to make an effort to enforce the terms of your agreement, especially if you find yourself doing this at 6pm on a Friday night. Even if you can get your attorney on the phone, the courthouse is closed, so without a certified copy of the Decree, you will be without a remedy to enforce your rights with respect to your children.
Times to re-review:
- Changes in status- child is 18 or emancipation age in your state. This is important for custody and support.
- Holidays- as mentioned above- they generally rotate each year and are hard to remember from year to year what you are entitled to.
- Before considering a modification- there may be things you must do before you can file a case with the court. Fro instance you may have to make a good faith effort to mediate this case prior to filing a new lawsuit.
- Before going back to court- always good to review so that you are aware of what might be pointed out regarding your failures or your spouses at the hearings.
Dorothy Walsh Ripka is the Team Leader of the Cordell & Cordell, P.C. offices in Dallas, Fort Worth and Memphis. Ms. Ripka is a seasoned attorney who has devoted her practice exclusively to domestic relations. She is licensed to practice law in Texas, Missouri and Illinois.
Read more about Dorothy Ripka.