The Nuts and Bolts of Getting to the Finish Line If You have Settled Your Case.

It was a long hard day.  But with the help of your attorneys, you and your spouse negotiated a settlement agreement and you were feeling pretty good about everything.  In fact, you thought, this is it.  There is nothing else to do.  I can celebrate.  Then your attorney told you that you were almost at the finish line – but you were not quite there.

Signing the settlement agreement is not the last thing you have to do to finish your case.

If you have settled your case you will probably have questions about what happens next – this can be confusing because frequently my clients think that the case is over when they have signed the settlement agreement.  However, signing the settlement agreement is not the last step. Here is a description of what needs to be done to finish up your case.   In short, before the divorce can be finalized, the parties have to appear in court with their attorneys even if the case was settled out of court and without getting the judge involved.  Your case is not finished until the judge assigned to your case signs the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and the Decree and Judgment. These are the documents necessary to actually get you divorced, to distribute the property and debt or establish a final custody order. They are necessary even if the parties settle their case.

Here are the steps, which come next after the settlement has been signed by both parties in a divorce case.

1.      One of the attorneys will file a copy of the settlement agreement in court with the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and the Decree and Judgment.

2.     One of the attorneys will call the judge’s chambers for a time for a hearing.  A hearing is a court proceeding at which parties appear in court in front of the judge. Because state law requires a custody and property settlement agreement to meet certain standards, every custody and property agreement must be approved by a superior court judge “on the record.”  On the record means in open court with the judge present and the court clerk making a permanent recording of the terms of the settlement.  Now, all court proceedings at least in Alaska are recorded digitally. Before digital recordings were available, the in-court clerks made tape recordings of the proceedings. Before tape recordings existed, a court reporter would type verbatim what each person said in court into a special court reporter’s machine.

3.     On the day of the court hearing, one of the attorneys will bring the settlement agreement (original) to court with the property table, and we will ask the judge to hold in the file as a confidential document.

4.     At the hearing, one of the attorneys (usually but not always the plaintiff’s attorney) will describe what the parties have agreed to in the agreement and will ask for the judge to approve the settlement agreement as being fair and equitable.  If there are children, we will ask the court to approve the custody part of the agreement as being in the children’s best interests.  In my cases, I explain to the judge that the parties have used stipulated (agreed-upon) values for their property and liabilities and that these values were arrived at through the process of negotiation.  The judge will probably explain that the agreement cannot be changed if the values of the property change after the date of the settlement.  The judge will also want to hear testimony under oath from each party about the date of marriage, the place of marriage, the number of children who are minors and whether the wife is pregnant. The judge will also want to confirm that each party has signed the settlement agreement voluntarily and each of them believes the settlement is a fair and equitable division of their property.  The judge will explain that the settlement agreement will become part of the final decree of divorce and it cannot be modified.   The judge will tell you that you cannot make any changes even if you wake up the day after the divorce and have “buyer’s remorse.”

4.      After this testimony has been taken, the judge will sign the Divorce Decree and the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law unless there are retirement accounts to be divided by a separate Order.

5.      If there are retirement accounts to be divided, the judge will hold the Divorce Decree and Findings in the file until the retirement division orders have been filed in court.  I know it is hard to wait for this to happen, but it is important for the retirement orders to be signed at the same time the Decree is signed.

6.      After the retirement division orders have been filed in court, the judge will sign everything.  The judge’s assistant will send me a certified copy of the Divorce Decree, the Findings and the Retirement Division Orders.

7.      Since the judge’s assistant will only send me one certified copy of the final documents, I will send our courier to court to get additional copies so that you have a certified copy for your files and there will be certified copies to send to each of the retirement plans, which are being divided between the parties in your case.

 After we receive the court documents, then you and your ex-spouse will take the steps necessary to put the settlement into place.

A.      Transferring title on your vehicles,

B.      Closing joint bank accounts,

C.      Separating and dividing personal property,

D.      Quitclaiming title on the house to the person who is receiving the house.

E.      Depending on the agreement, the person who is receiving the house may start the process of refinancing to take out a new loan in that person’s name only.

F.      Sending copies of the Findings and Decree to your employer to terminate health insurance coverage for the other spouse.

G.      Making any necessary changes in beneficiary designations on life insurance policies, annuities or retirement accounts.

H.      Updating your will and any other estate planning tools that are no longer appropriate since you are divorced.

I.        Notifying your insurance company and separating car insurance policies if they have not been separated.

J.       If you have agreed to sell the family home or other real estate, you and your spouse will contact the broker in charge of selling the home and start moving forward with the sale of the home.   The topic of selling the home should be covered in your settlement agreement.

Yes, it may seem that the process will never end.  But one day it will and by settling your case you will be free to move forward with your life.  It is worth the wait!


Image credit: Lighthouse Twilight by versageek used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

Posted in: Divorce