The final step in the legal divorce process is the divorce decree.  In California, it’s called a divorce judgment.  This document from the court does three main things:

  • divorce decreegrants the divorce,
  • indicates when it will be effective and
  • specifies (and orders) the terms of the divorce.

The date the divorce judgment is signed by a judge is the effective date of the the divorce in all respects, except possibly with respect to marital status.  If the required 6 month waiting period has not yet lapsed, the body of the divorce judgment will normally indicate when the spouses are returned to “single” status.

The decree in a legal separation specifies (and orders) the terms of the legal separation.

In California, the court uses a form FL-180 “Judgment” to grant a divorce.  The court mails this completed, stamped form to each spouse along with a completed form FL-190 “Notice of Entry of Judgment.”

The Judgment FL-180 form itself doesn’t indicate the terms of the divorce. This is done via attachment(s) that are submitted to the court for review and approval.

Divorce Decree Attachments

There are several different ways that the terms of the divorce can be communicated in writing to the court.  These can be any of the following, each of which are briefly explained below:

  • additional court forms;
  • a Stipulated Judgment;
  • a Marital Settlement Agreement;
  • a Memorandum of Understanding;
  • some other written agreement.

There are lots of different court forms that can be used to lay out the terms of a divorce.  There’s a child support form, a spousal support form, a custody and visitation form, etc.

A Stipulated Judgment is a formal written narrative normally prepared by either an attorney or a paralegal.  It contains all the provisions the spouses are stipulating (agreeing) to.

A Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) is also a formal written narrative, normally prepared by an attorney.  How does it differ from a Stipulated Judgment?  There’s not universal agreement on definitions.   But generally an MSA can stand on its own as a contract between the spouses.  And a Stipulated Judgment is not written to do so.  Therefore, a Stipulated Judgment may not have legal force until it has been accepted and signed by a judge.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is also a written narrative.  Mediators who are neither an attorney nor a paralegal usually prepare these.  I draft this settlement document  for my clients laying out all the terms of their divorce.  I write it in plain and simple English.  So it is shorter than most MSAs and Stipulated Judgments.

Sometimes spouses don’t have the assistance of an attorney, paralegal or mediator and they write out their own divorce agreements.  If their document covers all the required bases, the court may grant their divorce based upon it.