One of the goals in any divorce proceeding should be to obtain closure. For a lot of issues, this is possible. For other issues, it is simply not possible because the Court maintains power over issues such as parenting time, child support, custody, and alimony/spousal maintenance. This is all the more reason that, before a spouse signs off on a divorce Decree, he or she should have the document reviewed by a knowledgeable and competent attorney.
- You thought that if you wanted to change something in the future (i.e., custody or parenting time), that you could do it rather easily. The reality is that if you and your spouse sign off on your divorce Decree, it is a binding contract, and how the Decree is written dictates whether or not you can change it.
- Once you sign off on a divorce Decree, it is final and cannot be appealed after a certain period. If you settled on a property division that was not fair to you or agreed to pay spousal maintenance, you simply cannot go back and change it. For one, property divisions are final and cannot be changed (absent very specific situations). Spousal maintenance can be modified, but again, it depends on how the Decree is written.
- What you write in the divorce Decree today may matter once you plan to retire years later. For example, if you are fifty years old and you agreed to pay spousal maintenance, and there is no end date for the spousal maintenance obligation, you will have to bring a Motion to Modify or Terminate Spousal Maintenance. In these situations, the Judge looks back to how the divorce Decree was written. What is written for income and expenses and the obligation to conduct a job search can be very critical.
- You may not know what is marital property or non-marital property. You may have a non-marital claim, which if successfully traced means that some or all of the property would be excluded from the marital estate. Conversely, if a party is claiming non-marital property, they have the burden to prove it. You may think they have established their non-marital claim; however, the lawyer you consult may tell you otherwise.
- You may miss information from the other side that you are entitled to. For example, you may be operating under the assumption that, if your spouse owns an asset, you have no right to it. You may be operating under the assumption that a pension cannot be valued. Both of these assumptions are incorrect.
- Because you and your spouse submitted the paperwork yourselves and left out important details, the Judge may refuse to sign the divorce Decree. It is important to understand that a Judge’s role is not to simply “rubber stamp” any agreement that you may have reached with your spouse. The Judge has a duty to ensure that the agreement is fair and equitable. You may have to spend more money on an attorney trying to fix something as opposed to doing it correctly the first time around.
Bottom line: ensure that you have done your due diligence, and that you have all of the relevant information and financial documents before you sign off on a divorce Decree. Most lawyers offer an initial consultation. At a minimum, due diligence requires that you have your draft of the divorce Decree reviewed by a competent attorney so that you can be advised of your rights.