In the legal world, marriage isn’t about romance. Quite simply, it’s a contract; an agreement made between two people who want to be seen as a single entity in the eyes of the law. This contract binds the couple’s finances and interests, and offers certain protections and benefits in return.
There are a lot of upsides to this arrangement. The downside is that breaking it apart can be a little complicated.
To keep track of each spouse’s individual rights, duties, and responsibilities, post-divorce, your judge will encompass all of your divorce terms into a single document. This document is called a divorce decree, and—once signed by your judge—is backed by the full force of the law.
Here’s what you need to know about a divorce decree in California, and how the Provinziano team can help you navigate these important legal matters.
What is a Divorce Decree?
A divorce decree is a legal document that contains all the decisions and directives of your divorce. This document covers all the issues that were settled during your split, and codifies your judge’s decision into a single, easy-to-access place.
In many ways, a divorce decree is like the Rules of Engagement for your post-divorce life. Like a game day rulebook, it outlines your responsibilities, rights, and how certain marital affairs should be settled. When applicable, it also addresses how the couple is to interact moving forward. (Say, for example, in regards to raising minor children.)
The terms of a divorce decree are not optional. Couples are expected to follow them—even if they don’t agree—and failure to do so can result in serious financial and legal consequences.
What Does a Divorce Decree Cover?
Some of the important issues your divorce decree will cover include:
- The division of marital property;
- The division of marital debt;
- Child custody and visitation;
- Child support; and,
- The assignment of alimony (if any).
Here’s a closer look at each of these issues, and how California courts resolve them during divorce.
Dividing Marital Property
In California, marital property is divided according to the rules of community property.
Under these guidelines, anything that either spouse acquired during marriage belongs to both, equally—regardless of whose name is on the paycheck, loan, deed, or card. On the other hand, assets brought into the marriage are considered “separate property,” and will leave with their respective owners, upon divorce.
Once you get divorced, the court will divide your jointly owned property equally between you.
Dividing Marital Debt
Technically, marital debt is considered part of marital property. However, since it’s such a big part of divorce, we thought it could use its own separate shout out.
Like with assets, any debt acquired during marriage is owned by both partners equally. Similarly, any debt acquired prior to marriage belongs to the spouse who incurred it as separate property.
That being said, California courts will still consider who incurred the debt, what it was used for, and who benefited from it, when you get divorced. So these obligations are not always divided fifty-fifty.
Child Custody and Visitation
In California, child custody is determined according to the best interest of the child. Under this standard, all decisions involving minors will be made according to what will serve their long-term health and wellbeing the best.
Since it’s so difficult to divide a child’s time exactly equal between parents, the court will usually pick one parent to be the child’s primary residence parent (or “custodial parent”), while granting the other visitation.
Child support is determined by weighing income against the amount of parenting time you receive, and is almost always paid by the visitation parent.
This is because meeting a child’s basic daily needs is expensive, and—without support—these costs would disproportionately fall on the primary residence parent. Hence, child support helps even the scales, and ensures both parents are held equally financially responsible for meeting the costs of raising their child.
Children are not the only ones who need support, post-divorce; sometimes one of the spouses needs help, too. And this is where spousal support comes into play,
Spousal support (also called “alimony”) is money a judge orders one spouse to pay the other, to help get them back on their feet, post-divorce. This money is awarded based on need, and the other spouse’s ability to pay, and is not necessarily awarded in every case.
Payment qualifications are gender neutral, and available to same-sex couples and fathers just as much as they are to the stay at home mom.
How to Get a Divorce Decree
The only way to get a divorce decree is to get divorced. While a valid prenuptial agreement can help speed up the process, even these couples will need to formalize their split with a judge.
That being said, divorce is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and there are several different types of divorce you can choose from. In California, these include:
- Uncontested Divorce
- Collaborative Divorce
- Divorce Litigation
As a general rule, it’s always good to try settling out of court, first. Negotiations like mediation are much less expensive, and offer couples a greater amount of flexibility in dictating their own terms.
Enforcing Your Divorce Decree
While you might not like your judge’s decisions, it’s important to note that divorce decrees are non-negotiable. Once your finalized, you will be expected to carry out your responsibilities, as outlined, or risk facing serious financial and legal consequences.
Depending on which part of the order is being violated, some of these consequences could include:
- Liens on real property or bank accounts;
- The suspension of licenses (both professional and vehicular);
- The intervention of tax returns, federal or state benefits, and even lottery ticket winnings; and even,
- A criminal charge of contempt of court, in extreme circumstances.
That being said, California legislatures understand that life isn’t stagnant, and circumstances often change. Which is why in some situations you may be able to modify your divorce decree.
Modifying Your Divorce Decree
There are two ways a divorce decree in California can be modified:
- By appealing the judgment.
- By filing a Motion to Modify with the court.
While it’s technically an option, appealing your judgment will be tough, since it can be difficult to prove that the lower court erred in their decisions about your divorce.
Modifications, on the other hand, are much more common, and can be requested if there has been a significant change of circumstance. (Though, the exact process for doing so would depend on which area of your order you wanted to modify.)
Modifications cannot be applied retroactively, so it’s important to act quickly if you need one—especially if the modification is financially motivated.
Do You Need a Divorce Attorney in California?
Divorce decrees contain all the terms of your divorce. Many of the decisions made in this document can be expensive and difficult to change, which is why it’s so important to get it right the first time.
If you have more questions about a divorce decree in California, and how you can expect some of these issues to resolve, we want to hear from you. Call Provinziano & Associates at (310) 237-6179, or get in touch online, and let us help fight for your interests in these important matters.