What Is in a Divorce Decree?

Hossein Berenji, Feb 15, 2021

A divorce decree is the final judgment in a divorce proceeding. California law refers to a divorce as a dissolution of a marriage. The divorce decree is the order that finalizes the dissolution and outlines the rights and responsibilities of the parties going forward.

A divorce decree is comprehensive. It wraps up the loose ends of the marital relationship and sets up the post-marriage relationship, if any is applicable. This is where you will find the judge’s orders regarding children, property, and support payments.

Here are some things you should know about divorce decrees in California and the issues addressed in them.

Final Order in a Divorce

The divorce decree is the final order in a divorce. It is intended to make the divorce legally binding and end the marriage. As such, judges write divorce decrees to be as comprehensive as possible.

The divorce decree will contain the judge’s decisions on all the matters that you have fought over during the divorce. The decree will address the main issues in the divorce, including:

  • Child custody and visitation
  • Property and debt division
  • Child support
  • Spousal support
  • Protective orders

Each of these issues is addressed more thoroughly below.

Child Custody and Visitation

Your divorce proceeding probably had significant battles over child custody and visitation. California law includes a presumption in favor of joint custody of children. This means that a spouse must present convincing reasons for seeking sole custody. The judge must describe the reasons that overcame the presumption in the divorce decree.

Absent these reasons, the parents will share joint custody of the children.

Joint Physical Custody

Physical custody refers to the living arrangements and parent time that each parent receives. Joint physical custody does not necessarily require equality in time, but it does allow both parents to have physical contact with the children on a reasonably fair basis.

For example, the children might spend weekdays at one parent’s residence so they can attend school. The children might spend weekends and school holidays at the other parent’s residence.

Joint Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to the ability to make decisions regarding the child’s life. Joint legal custody means each parent has a say in the child’s education, medical care, and religion. The divorce decree might also explain how disputes over these decisions will be resolved. For example, the spouses might suggest — and the judge might order — that disputes between the parents be taken to mediation or arbitration before seeking the court’s assistance as needs arise in the future.

The divorce decree will have the final determination for custody issues. But if circumstances change, the parents can seek a modification of the divorce decree. For example, if one parent moves out of the state, the child custody portion of the divorce decree might require modification.

Division of Property and Debts

California is a community property state. This means that, in the absence of a prenuptial agreement, the marital community owns all of the property acquired during the marriage. During the dissolution, the judge splits the marital assets equally between the spouses.

Similarly, the marital community owns all of the debts incurred during the marriage. The divorce decree will divide the marital debts equally between the spouses.

Separate property consists of property the spouses each brought to the marriage. Separate property is returned to the spouse who originally owned it.

The decree will explain the property division and the judge’s reasoning for the division. This is important because judges occasionally make mistakes. An appeals court can identify and remedy those mistakes if it understands the judge’s original reasoning for the decision.

Child Support

Child support is a separate, but related issue to child custody. Child support seeks to balance several competing interests including:

  • The parents have a responsibility to support their children.
  • A parent who has physical responsibility for the children makes a substantial contribution to the support of the children.
  • Parents should support children according to their ability to pay.
  • Children should have a consistent standard of living between the parents.

California used these principles to create tables of formulae that are used to calculate child support. Judges use these tables to order child support in the divorce decree.

Spousal Support

The divorce decree may include an order of spousal support, also known as alimony. Judges order spousal support so both spouses can maintain the standard of living established during the marriage to the greatest extent possible.

Judges often consider alimony when the spouses have vastly different earnings and earning potential, leaving one spouse at risk of a low standard of living while the other spouse enjoys a high standard of living.

Some of the factors a judge can consider in ordering spousal support include:

  • The duration of the marriage
  • The job skills of the spouses and the job market for those skills
  • The impact of long-term unemployment during the marriage for a spouse who handled household duties
  • The needs of each party for support
  • The means of each party to pay support

A judge can enforce an order of spousal support through liens and other judicial orders.

Protective Orders

Not every divorce includes protective orders. But in circumstances in which one or both spouses have engaged in domestic violence, a judge can include a protective order in the divorce decree.

California law lists three types of protective orders that can be included in a decree.

Specific Acts of Abuse

A judge can order a spouse to stop harassing, stalking, battering, or otherwise abusing the ex-spouse and, if good cause is shown, the ex-spouse’s relatives.

Excluding a Person from a Dwelling

Judges can order a spouse to stay away from the ex-spouse’s home or the home of anyone caring for the couple’s children.

Other Specified Behaviors

A protective order can stop a spouse from engaging in other behavior that facilitates the abusive conduct. For example, a judge can order a spouse to stay away from an ex-spouse’s workplace.

Securing a protective order in a divorce decree could give you peace of mind if your marriage included acts of abuse or violence.

Getting a Divorce Decree

Judges issue divorce decrees in all dissolutions, including contested and uncontested divorces. To minimize the surprises in a divorce decree, you should consider negotiating at least some of the terms beforehand so the judge will not need to decide them.

Although a divorce can cause strong emotions, recognizing that it will end a contentious marriage should give you an incentive to compromise on the decree so you can walk away from the marriage more quickly.