What is a Decree Nisi?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A decree nisi is a legal term that refers to a court order or decision that is not yet finalized. Sometimes used in divorce proceedings, a decree nisi may expire after a certain period of time, allowing the decision to be known as a decree absolute. The use of a decree nisi allows for the alteration of a judgment should new evidence be presented or new petitions filed before the waiting period expires.

A decree nisi gives feuding partners a cooling off period during divorce proceedings.
A decree nisi gives feuding partners a cooling off period during divorce proceedings.

Nisi comes from a Latin word that roughly translates as “unless.” Thus, a decree nisi means that the judgment is final unless some reason is presented that would alter terms or orders. Generally, the idea behind a judgment of this kind is to allow major parties extra time to produce evidence or file alternative petitions. Though used quite infrequently, this form of judgment remains common in family law courts throughout the United Kingdom, and may influence divorce law in other regions.

The use of a decree nisi is common in divorce proceedings, partly because divorce can be an emotionally stressful time with quite a few uncertainties that may alter agreements on division of assets and responsibilities. Parties in a divorce may not be able to rationally assess the circumstances and come up with a fair or logical division in the heat of early proceedings. Thus, the decree nisi allows a cooling off period after the initial judgment or acceptance of settlements, so that both parties may have a chance to assess needs better and make sensible changes.

Another reason that a decree nisi or similar “cooling off” period may be built into a divorce court process is the possibility of a reconciliation of the marriage. If a decree absolute is issued, the couple is officially divorced and must go through the legal marriage process again if they choose to reconcile. By filing a joint petition to dismiss a decree nisi because of reconciliation, the couple remains married in the eyes of the law and thus is saved the legal hassle of remarriage.

In areas where a decree nisi is standard procedure, divorcing spouses may have to sign and file a document requesting that the decree becomes absolute at the end of the waiting period. In some jurisdictions, simply allowing the waiting period to lapse allows the judge to make the decree absolute by default. Parties will usually receive copies of the decree after filing, with a detailed list of judgments and notification of the date that the decree will become final. When an absolute judgment becomes effective, another notification will be sent. It is important to keep evidence of the judgment absolute, as parties that wish to marry another partner may need to legally prove that they are divorced.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I think that it's good that there is a period of time before a decree nisi becomes final. Even if the couple don't reconcile, they may want to make changes to how their finances and other responsibilities are distributed. Divorce is a serious matter and it shouldn't be rushed. And it's always nice for a legal system to give priority to family and I think that this period for decree nisi helps reinforce that.

Even if the couple don't reconcile, they will calm down and have a clear idea that this is really what they want to do. I think it's healthier for both the family institution and the individuals' emotional health should they choose to part.

My father had applied for divorce from my mother before I was born. They reconciled during the decree nisi waiting period so they didn't divorce at that time. I was born a few years later. They eventually divorced (after 20 years of marriage), but I'm still happy they got back together the first time or I wouldn't have been born!


@turquoise-- I suppose it depends on the country and the law. In the UK, the court gives six weeks between decree nisi and decree absolute but the decree absolute doesn't apply automatically. The party that filed for divorce must file for a decree absolute after the six week period is up. Otherwise, the case remains in decree nisi status for up to one year I believe. I'm not sure what happens after one year. But if the person who filed for divorce is refusing to file for decree absolute, the partner can also file after three months.


After the cooling off period, does the decree nisi automatically become decree obsolete? I wonder how many couples actually reconcile their marriage in this period? It would be interesting to see those statistics.

Post your comments
Forgot password?