Settlement Agreements and Court Approval
The vast majority of divorce cases reach settlement before the case needs to go to trial -- whether as a result of informal negotiations between the spouses (and their attorneys) or through alternative dispute resolution processes like mediation or collaborative law. Below is a discussion of settlement agreements and court approval in divorce cases.
The Settlement Agreement
If a divorcing couple (and their attorneys) negotiates and resolves all issues related to their divorce, whether informally or through out-of-court processes like mediation or collaborative law, the couple's decisions are finalized in detail in a written settlement agreement. This agreement is then shown to a judge in the county/district branch of state court where the divorce petition was filed. An informal hearing will usually follow, during which the judge will ask some basic factual questions, and whether each party understands and chose to voluntarily sign the agreement. As long as the judge is satisfied that the agreement was fairly negotiated, and the terms do not appear to blatantly favor one spouse over the other, the settlement agreement will almost always receive court approval.
Court Approval and Divorce Decree
Once the judge approves the divorcing couple's settlement agreement, he or she gives the couple a divorce decree that shows that the divorce is final, and documents how key issues have been resolved. The decree dictates a number of things about the now-divorced couple's rights and obligations, including:
- Child custody, living arrangements, and a visitation schedule;
- Division of the couple's marital property, debts, and resolution of other financial matters;
- Child support and spousal support (alimony): who pays, who receives, how much, when, etc.;
If the judge does not approve one or more terms of the settlement agreement, he or she will likely order the parties to continue negotiating on those terms. If the couple does not reach any settlement agreement, the divorce case will go to trial before a judge or jury.
A divorcing couple may reach settlement on a number of issues related to the divorce, but might find themselves unable to agree on other questions. If this happens, a partial settlement might be reached, and the remaining unresolved issues will be submitted to the court for resolution. For example, if the couple has worked out a voluntary settlement on all issues related to their children (child custody rights, a visitation schedule, payment of support) but cannot agree on what to do with the family's vacation home, the court might approve a partial settlement agreement on custody and support, but will order that the property issue be submitted for resolution at trial.