What is a Final Decree?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A final decree is, literally, the last word in a court case. The decree discusses the outcome of the case along with any terms and conditions, and indicates that there is no need for additional litigation. Once signed by the judge and the court clerk, the final decree can be filed, and serves as the record that the case is over and cannot be brought back to court. There may be cases in which people require copies of this decree, in which case they can request them from the clerk of the court.

Alimony and division of assets are addressed in a final divorce decree.
Alimony and division of assets are addressed in a final divorce decree.

The context in which many people are familiar with the idea of the final decree is a divorce. Even if people have not experienced divorce, they may have heard people talking about final and interlocutory decrees. In a divorce, it is common for an intermediary decision to be issued first, giving the couple a chance to reconcile. When it is evident that this will not occur, the judge issues a final decree, closing the divorce proceedings and dissolving the marriage.

A divorce final  decree officially ends the marriage, but the partners may still need to communicate in order to split shared property or co-parent children.
A divorce final decree officially ends the marriage, but the partners may still need to communicate in order to split shared property or co-parent children.

In the case of a divorce final decree, the document discusses issues agreed upon during the proceedings, such as alimony, child custody, and division of assets. This creates a legally binding agreement which the partners are expected to abide by, although they may renegotiate the terms to address changing living circumstances and other issues which can arise. It is important to read the decree carefully to confirm that it accurately represents the agreements made, with the judge usually providing a draft copy for people to review before finalizing the document.

A final decree may be issued in a child adoption case.
A final decree may be issued in a child adoption case.

Another case in which a final decree might be used is an adoption decree. The decree finalizes the adoption and may take steps such as authorizing the amendment of a birth certificate to reflect the adoption. In this case, again, the document is used to finalize a legal decision and to provide specific information about agreements attached to the decision. For example, in a closed adoption, the decree would indicate that the adoption is closed, and an additional step might be taken to seal the record so that it is not readily accessible.

Final decrees may deal with child custody.
Final decrees may deal with child custody.

During a case, intermediate orders and temporary orders may be issued. The final decree supersedes these. It may reinforce, suspend, or overrule them, depending on the case. People who are not clear about the language in any decree should ask a lawyer for assistance with the document to make sure that they fully understand their rights and obligations.

Adultery is a common cause for divorce in many countries.
Adultery is a common cause for divorce in many countries.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I don't believe you should have to explain to anyone the reasons you want a divorce. You didn't have to explain why you wanted to get married before they would issue you a marriage license. I don't see how one's marriage or any type of relationship and the reasons for splitting up is any of the court's business.

I wasn't required to give a reason when I filed for divorce. We didn't even have to appear in front of a judge. Why should our government have the right to know every intimate detail of our lives?


My husband wants the divorce records sealed and I do not. He previously said he would agree to pay half of child care if I would not depose him and I haven't, but some of the information he does not want the public to know was brought up in a temporary hearing. Can the judge rule to seal the records even if I do not agree to it?


@jmc88 - That is an interesting question you ask. I guess in a way appeals courts have final decrees, even though I am not sure they are stated like that. Like you probably know, those types of courts writing decisions regarding how the judges voted on a certain issue and why. It seems like that would provide a little bit more than a final decree would, since it is in more detail. Also, the article says a judge signs off on a final decree, but would that still need to happen with 3 or more judges?

On the other hand, though, it seems like there still might need to be some sort of paperwork that could be filed on the public record that is just a brief statement about the decision.

Does anyone know where you would find final decrees? Are they just something that you could go to the county courthouse and ask for, or do you have to be associated with the case in some way?


@cardsfan27 - I know in my state, whenever you go to small claims court, they issues something called a "final order." It basically outlines the final ruling by the judge and what needs to happen. It is just things you mentioned like what needs to be paid and by what date.

I would assume they have to have some sort of a final decree for criminal cases, too. My guess is that the topics mentioned so far get more attention because people are really concerned about what they say. In a divorce, everyone is concerned about who is going to get custody of kids or property. In an adoption, you need to make the guardianship official. When it comes to a criminal case, people aren't going to be too concerned about the charges, because there is probably not a lot of negotiating that is going to happen.

Back to your small claims court question, though, it got me thinking in the other direction of whether or not higher courts like Circuit Courts and the Supreme Court would have final decrees.


@JimmyT - I know that I have also heard of a bankruptcy final decree. I guess it would sort of be the same thing as a divorce except you're getting separated from you debt! I don't know what all would go into that, but I am assuming it would have something to do with how much you owed as well as what possessions you had that would be liquidized and put toward the debt. It might also specificy any other conditions like wage garnishment or something like that.

From the way I understand it, a final decree would be present in every case. I am guessing in a criminal case, there would be information about the final charges, the sentence, and the time by which fines and things like that had to be paid.

Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if they make final decrees for civil suits like in small claims court.


@David09 - I agree with you. I guess the idea is that people getting married are expected to stay together for life, but that isn't too common anymore. If people decide they don't want to be together anymore, I don't think it is really the court's problem to care about the details of why.

Outside of the examples of divorce and adoption from the article, are there any other common situations where a court will issue a final decree? Along the same lines, is a final decree present in every case, it is just more commonly discussed in certain types of cases?


@miriam98 - I don’t think you’ll have any luck there. The term “irreconcilable differences” appears on the divorce form. It’s one of the items that the parties are supposed to check if they apply. There doesn’t seem to be much room for explanation.

I suppose the court proceedings will allow the parties to elaborate some more, I don’t know. I agree the courts should make it a little more difficult, but you have to understand they are not in the marriage counseling business.

They are there to settle a legal dispute. Marriage is a legal contract. The courts can create the contract, and they can break it. I’m sure the judge has other things he must deal with. The parties need to go through counseling before they get to the courts.


Thankfully I have no firsthand experience in how to divorce a spouse – and I don’t want any. One thing that I’ve never understood is the term “irreconcilable differences.”

I know what the term means, but I think it has just become some sort of catch-all phrase for two parties who want to split up without explaining why.

I believe the judge needs to press the petitioners on what exactly do they mean by the term, and why they can’t work things out. Perhaps this is already part of the divorce proceeding, I don’t know.

I just think that divorce has become way too easy in our society. People need to be encouraged to work things out. If the couple’s differences are really irreconcilable, why weren’t they aware of them before the marriage contract?

I’m just playing devil’s advocate here for how I think the petitioners should be questioned.


I think it's interesting that in a closed adoption, they issue a final decree but then make it inaccessible somehow. I wonder what would happen if someone contested the adoption later for some reason?

I suppose the court probably keeps a record of it somewhere. But hiding it seems like it could really put a damper on any legal proceedings in the future. What if the adoptive parents needed it for some reason?


@Azuza - Yeah, the concept does make sense. I think it's crazy how long and drawn out the process of divorce is though. In my opinion they should just issue the final decree right away and be done with it.

In my state, it takes over a year to get divorced. You have to separated for a year, and go through all the legal proceedings before the final decree can be issued. I remember when my parents got divorced my mom was so happy when the long process was over and the judge finally issued the final decree of divorce!


I'm not that familiar with our legal system. I've never had to deal with a final divorce decree or been part of an adoption. However, I do think the idea of the final decree makes sense.

I feel like in law, you have a lot of chances to appeal a case. If you don't like the way to first court rules, you can appeal and take it to a higher court. It makes sense that at some point, the case has to be totally done and finalized. Having a final decree seems like it would do the trick.

Post your comments
Forgot password?