Family Law

What Documents Do I Need to Keep After My Divorce Is Finalized?

By Joseph Pandolfi, Retired Judge
Learn what documents you need to retain after your divorce is over.

At long last, your divorce is over. The nightmare is behind you, and you can start to breathe normally again. You might be inclined to discard all the paperwork that reminds you of your ordeal. That would be a mistake.

The Final Judgment of Divorce

The final judgment—also called the divorce decree—is obviously the key document in any divorce. It’s an official order signed by a judge and is proof that your marriage is legally over. It will also contain the final disposition of your all your divorce-related issues, which may include:

Your divorce decree should spell out how all of the foregoing issues will be handled. The details will be contained in the judgment itself or will be included in a martial settlement agreement (also known as a divorce settlement agreement or property settlement agreement). If you have a settlement agreement, it should be provided to the court so that it can be attached and incorporated into the judgment.

Make sure you get at least one copy of the divorce judgment that has a court seal, which verifies its authenticity. This is especially important if the judgment permits you to resume using a former name, because you may need to submit the sealed copy to certain agencies, such as the Social Security Administration or your state’s division of motor vehicles.

Keep Appraisals

During the course of the divorce, you may have had appraisals done for one or more of your assets. You see this most typically with real estate, high-end personal property or collectibles (like jewelry or antiques), and businesses. Because these appraisals usually provide the basis for how to divide a portion of the marital property, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of them in case you need to reference them down the road, especially if an asset isn’t scheduled to be distributed until some point after the divorce.

Other assets that are usually appraised are retirement accounts (such as pensions and 401(k)s). The majority of divorces occur before the spouse who owns the retirement account is eligible to receive the proceeds. If, under the terms of the divorce, the non-owning spouse is entitled to a portion of a retirement account, the court will ordinarily order preparation of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to protect that spouse’s interest in the future. Frequently, QDROs are prepared by actuaries or attorneys who specialize in this area, and these individuals will use the retirement account appraisal in drawing up this document that orders and instructs the plan administrator to divide the account.

Financial Documents

In the course of the divorce, there will be an exchange of information through mandatory preliminary disclosures and/or the divorce discovery process. Spouses must exchange any information and documents that are relevant to the divorce. The most common kind of information produced in a divorce is financial data, which is relevant to dividing property and setting an amount for financial support. These types of documents include income tax returns (personal and business), canceled checks, bank statements, and credit card statements.

You should keep copies of all your divorce-related financial paperwork for tax purposes and if you’re paying or receiving child or spousal support. The couple’s financial status at the time of the divorce will determine support amounts. But there may come a day when either of the spouses seeks a modification of that support and it will be helpful for you to have the paperwork showing what the financial situation was at the time the order was set.

For example, if an ex-spouse who is paying support loses a job or becomes disabled, resulting in income loss, that person could apply to the court for a payment decrease. Reverse the situation, and the person receiving support could request an increase. The court may need to see the financial documentation from the divorce to determine whether circumstances warrant a change in the support order.

Speaking of Support Payments. . . .

It’s common today for support payments—especially child support—to be garnished from wages and disbursed through the county probation department. But in cases where payments are made directly from one ex-spouse to the other, it would be wise for both to keep track of those payments. Make a copy of the check or money order, if you can. At the very least, make a written notation of the date on the check or money order, the amount, and the date you mailed it or received it.

This may seem like a wasted effort if things are going smoothly. But at some point a problem may arise: a late payment, an incorrect amount, or, a claim that a payment was never received. Having documented proof can save you time and aggravation if the dispute ends up in court.

Miscellaneous Items

If you had to provide your marriage certificate to the court during the divorce, make sure you get it back. For marriages that lasted ten years or more, a spouse will normally be able to collect on the other spouse’s Social Security. The Social Security Administration will need a copy of the marriage certificate to verify the duration of the marriage.

Also, it’s probably a good idea to retain copies of any court orders issued during the divorce, prior to the final judgment. These will typically involve matters such as temporary child or spousal support, and temporary custody or parenting time. You may never need them once the court finalizes the divorce, but if issues relating to these topics crop up in the future, it can’t hurt to have these orders available, particularly if they contain any important factual determinations the judge hearing your case made at the time.

Be sure to consult with an experienced divorce lawyer if you have questions on this topic.

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