Family Law

What's in a Divorce Settlement Agreement?

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Your divorce settlement agreement is going to be one the of most important documents you'll ever sign. Make sure your rights are protected.

What Issues Does a Divorce Settlement Cover?

A divorce settlement agreement—also called a marital settlement agreement—is a legally binding contract that is intended to resolve every divorce-related issue in your case. For example, a typical settlement agreement may:

Some divorce agreements are even more detailed, specifying which spouse keeps the family pet or splitting artwork.

Your agreement should clearly cover any and all issues that were part of your divorce or that could become an issue after your divorce is final. For example, if you and your spouse agreed to a permanent and mutual waiver of spousal support, your settlement contract should clearly state that neither spouse will receive or request alimony. If your agreement is silent on alimony, your spouse might be able to ask for financial support down the road. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, and include the specific terms of all of the agreements you've made.

Who Should Prepare the Agreement?

It doesn’t matter who prepares the agreement, as long as it’s signed by both spouses in the presence of a notary. Your spouse can draft the agreement for you to review and edit, a mediator may write it, you can draft it together during a settlement conference, or an attorney may prepare it for you. What matters most is that the agreement correctly reflects everything that you and your spouse have agreed to before you sign off on it.

Keep in mind that if your spouse hires an attorney to draft the settlement document, that attorney represents your soon-to-be-ex’s interests—not your own. Be careful about taking advice from anyone other than your own attorney. There are long-term implications with any divorce agreement, so it's important that you know what the associated legal consequences may be. If you don’t understand the agreement—or if your spouse has an attorney—you should hire a local divorce lawyer who can review the contract on your behalf and ensure that your rights are protected.

Modifying a Divorce Agreement

Under certain circumstances, you can make changes to a divorce settlement agreement. A modification can be pretty simple if you and your spouse agree to the change before your agreement becomes part of a court order. An agreement doesn’t become an official court order until it’s approved by a judge, who then incorporates it into a final divorce decree.

Once your agreement becomes a court order, you may only be able to modify certain provisions, like child custody arrangements, child support, and alimony payments, and only if specific criteria for a change in circumstances are met. Some divorce orders will specify that alimony is non-modifiable, in which case it can’t be changed. Changes to child custody or child support always require the requesting parent to show that the change serves the child’s best interests. It’s rare for a court to set aside the portions of an order that cover property and debt division. Those types of orders are effective immediately, and it can be very difficult to undo them.

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