So now you’re officially divorced. This has been incredibly painful, and the last thing you want to do is to spend more time messing with it. But you’ll be much better off down the road if you spend a few minutes now to make sure everything is in order.
Read Your Order
There’s no substitute for carefully reading your divorce court order from beginning to end. Ideally, you already did this before the judge signed it. Even if you did, though, read it again. Don’t rely on the judge, or even your lawyer. You’re the one who’s going to have to live with it, so you need to make sure you understand it thoroughly.
You might want to make a copy of your order and give it to a trusted friend to read. "Fresh eyes" may help spot something you meant to cover but forgot to mention. It may be too late to bring it up now, but the sooner you know about it, the more likely you can deal with it effectively.
Change It If Necessary
Divorced spouses are notorious for keeping the fight going after the judge has signed the divorce court order. As a result, it’s tough to change a divorce court judgment after it’s signed.
But there may be some changes you can make:
- You can change any obvious typographical errors.
- You may be able to change a provision that is unenforceable by its terms – for example, a provision that requires you to transfer a bank account that doesn’t exist.
- In some states, if you move quickly, you may be able to change a settlement agreement that you signed while your judgment was impaired or while you were under extreme duress.
- Or you can appeal.
Appeal If You Must
Appealing a divorce court judgment is usually a lousy use of your money. Something like 90 percent of divorce court judgments are approved on appeal. Divorce court judgments tend to resolve several related issues in one ruling, and they’re highly dependent on the judge’s discretion after seeing the parties and assessing their credibility. This makes appellate courts reluctant to upset the discretion of the trial court unless they see something that’s clearly out of whack.
Appeals are expensive:
- You’ll pay several hundred dollars for a trial transcript
- You’ll pay for your lawyer to digest the transcript, research the issues and prepare a brief
- You’ll pay your lawyer to evaluate the brief of your ex-spouse’s lawyer and prepare a reply brief
- You may pay your lawyer to attend oral argument on your behalf
- You may pay for your ex-spouse’s lawyer to do all the same things
Whatever you spent on your trial, figure that much again as a rough guess of the cost of an appeal.
If you must appeal, think carefully about which lawyer is right to handle it. You certainly can use the same lawyer for your appeal that you used for your divorce trial, and many people do that. However, there’s also no reason why you must use the same lawyer.
The appeal process seldom requires your attorney to spend much time with you, and it may not even require the attorney to leave his or her office. Many appeals of domestic court judgments are handled entirely on paper, with no oral argument at all. So there may be no real advantage to finding a lawyer near you, or even close to the appellate court. Instead, you may want to find someone who has considerable appellate experience, ideally dealing with the issues you expect to be the focus of your appeal.
Just remember that the skills needed to handle an appeal successfully (excellent writing ability, legal knowledge and familiarity with appellate procedures) are different from those needed in a trial.
Abide By It
One of the mistakes divorced people make most frequently is to forget to do the things their divorce court order requires. For example, your order may provide that one of you is to assign your rights to the house or other real estate to the other by quitclaim deed (or in some other way). Make sure you actually do it.
Did you end up with a "Qualified Domestic Relations Order" to transfer interest in one of your retirement plans? Make sure you follow through.
Did you agree to pay child support? Make sure you actually pay it to the recipient by the method required under the child support order. If you pay by check, keep your cancelled checks. Never, never, never pay cash for child support.
Does the order require you to close a checking account? To pay off a bill? Do it.
Does the order require that your spouse do something by a certain date, like remove your name from the loan on the house? Set up a reliable system so you’ll remember to check at that time and make sure it was done.
Now, about your children. If you and your spouse are still fighting, I recommend that you devote at least the first couple of months to following the court-ordered schedule exactly, without ever asking for a deviation. If your spouse asks for one, be as flexible as possible, but you shouldn’t ask for one for the first couple of months.
Just follow the order. This is a critical time for everyone to get accustomed to your new life as co-parents. Stick to the order. There’ll be plenty of time later to ask for flexibility.
If this has been a cooperative divorce (as most are), you and your spouse may immediately begin deviating from the court-ordered schedule. That’s cool. Just remember that if you start fighting about something, it’s the schedule in the order that the judge will probably enforce.
By the way, if you’re getting to the point at which you’re finished with your divorce and moving on with your life, it’s time to think about executing a new will.