Marital Settlement Agreement vs. Divorce Decree: What’s the Difference?

Several documents lead up to a divorce. Even though many people use the terms marital settlement agreement and divorce decree interchangeably, these are not the same. The difference between a marital settlement agreement vs. divorce decree is that the former is a settlement agreement that defines the terms that will apply after the divorce. In contrast, the latter is the court order ending the marriage.

1. Understanding the Basics

Couples often work out a marital settlement agreement before the court finalizes their divorce decree. However, Law for Families states that the court may get called to determine the divorce settlement terms. Once the divorce decree is issued, the terms in the marital settlement agreement are combined into the decree, and both become legally binding.

Therefore, even if they contain the same information, there is a difference between marital settlement agreement vs. divorce decree. The first is an agreement that the divorcing couple decides unless there is a contested divorce. In contrast, the divorce decree is the formal termination of the marriage issued by the court.

2. Key Components of a Marital Settlement Agreement

The marital settlement agreement outlines all of the couple’s divorce terms. These include the following:

Some couples will reach an out-of-court marital together, while others seek professional help to divide their marital property and work out the other agreements. Couples may also revise the agreement several times before submitting it to the court to finalize their divorce decree.

In cases where the couple can’t agree on the terms of their divorce settlement, the court may organize an investigation before determining the terms based on what they see as the most fitting settlement.

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3. Breaking Down a Divorce Decree

If a couple opts for an out-of-court divorce settlement, they create a marital settlement agreement through their lawyers. The court generally approves these agreements where they concern alimony or property settlements.

However, the court seriously considers the child custody arrangements of divorcing couples to ensure that they always favor the children’s best interests. Additionally, the courts determine the child support agreements based on a formula in most states to guarantee that both parents help support their children financially.

The court order enters the public record once a final divorce decree is issued. The couple must comply with the terms of the divorce order, including the schedule for alimony payments,  relinquishment of assets to a former spouse, etc., or face charges for contempt of court.

Couples may petition to modify the court orders if their lifestyle needs to change in the following years.

4. Choosing the Right Option for Your Situation

Creating a marital settlement agreement requires choosing suitable options for your situation. You and your spouse must agree on the terms if you want an uncontested divorce. If you can’t talk it out, then you must get help by:

Working With a Mediator

Divorce mediators are not lawyers and don’t work with the court. They can help inform you of all the options for your situation when agreeing on the distribution of property, alimony, and other essential terms of the marital settlement agreement. Once you have the meditated settlement agreement, the document is ready for presentation to the court. Additionally, you can change these terms if you want to before officially filing for divorce.

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Working With a Lawyer

If you and your spouse cannot agree during mediation, you should hire lawyers to take the process into arbitration. Lawyers advocate for their client’s best interests during this process.

Additionally, they have an extra resource that mediators don’t have. They can use subpoenas to get more information concerning aspects of your divorce agreement.

Your lawyers will go back and forth with the proposed solutions until both parties agree on the settlement terms. The process can be lengthy if the couple doesn’t agree on the division of the assets.

Once you both agree on a settlement, it becomes a contract. Some parts of the contract may immediately come into effect, even before the court issues the divorce decree. Once you reach an agreement, you cannot change any parts, even before you file it in court.

Unsuccessful Mediation and Arbitration

Filing for an uncontested divorce is impossible without a marital settlement agreement. If you have failed to reach one through any means available, you must file for a contested divorce without any agreement.

The case goes to family court, and the judge decides how the marital settlement agreement must look and enforces compliance. Both parties in the divorce will need their lawyer to argue their case in court.

It’s best to avoid a contested divorce unless there’s no other way to reach an agreement because this can be lengthy, stressful, and expensive.

5. Pros and Cons of a Marital Settlement Agreement

A marital settlement agreement outlines the terms and conditions of a divorce or separation, including the division of assets, child custody, alimony, and other relevant matters. It is legally binding. Here are the pros and cons of having a marital settlement agreement:


Control – The parties have more control over the terms of the divorce or separation, as they can negotiate and agree on the specific terms that work for their unique situation.

Certainty – It provides clarity and predictability, reducing the potential for disputes and legal battles in the future.

Efficiency – Resolving issues through a marital settlement agreement can expedite divorce, potentially saving time and stress.

Cost Savings – Marital settlement agreements can lower legal fees and court costs than a contested divorce.

Privacy – The divorce details remain private since the agreement is typically not public, unlike court proceedings.

Customization – Agreements get tailored to address the unique needs and circumstances of the parties, which may be more flexible than court-ordered decisions.


Potential for Inequity – In some cases, a spouse may feel pressured into accepting an unfair settlement, mainly if there is a significant power imbalance.

Complexity – They entail a complex draughting process, requiring careful consideration of various legal and financial aspects.

Lack of Legal Advice – If they don’t get legal advice, one or both parties may not understand their obligations and rights stated in the agreement. Limited Court Intervention:

Limited Court Intervention – Once finalized, the marital settlement agreement can be challenging to modify or seek court intervention in the future, even if circumstances change.

Emotional Stress – The negotiation process can be emotionally taxing, often involving discussions about sensitive and personal issues.

Enforceability Issues – Even though legally binding, these agreements may be challenged in court if there are allegations of coercion, fraud, or the violation of legal standards.

Potential for Future Disagreements – Despite the agreement, disputes can still arise if one party fails to adhere to the terms, potentially leading to legal actions or further negotiation.

Each marital agreement can have varying pros and cons because each divorce or separation has unique circumstances, the willingness of both parties to cooperate, and the quality of legal counsel involved. It’s best to seek legal advice when creating or reviewing a marital settlement agreement to ensure that your welfare and rights are protected in a fair and enforceable way.

6. Pros and Cons of a Divorce Decree

A divorce decree is the court’s formal order that legally terminates a marriage and outlines the settlement terms. It typically addresses property division, child custody, alimony, and child support. Here are the pros and cons of a divorce decree:


Legal Finality – A divorce decree provides legal finality to the marriage, allowing both parties to move on and make independent life decisions.

Enforceable Court Order –The terms of the divorce decree are enforceable by law, ensuring that both parties comply with their obligations and responsibilities.

Clarity and Certainty – The decree offers a clear and legally binding resolution to issues like property division, spousal support, and child custody, reducing the potential for future disputes.

Protection of Rights – The decree helps protect both spouses’ legal rights and interests, providing a structured framework for addressing financial and custodial matters.

Child Support and Custody Arrangements – A divorce decree can establish child custody and child support arrangements that prioritize the children’s best interests.

Property Division – It ensures the fair and equitable distribution of marital assets and debts according to the applicable laws.

Legal Recourse – In non-compliance, the decree allows the aggrieved party to seek legal remedies through court enforcement.


Difficulty in Modification – The terms of a divorce decree can be challenging to modify after the divorce is finalized, especially regarding issues like child custody and spousal support.

Potential for Non-Compliance – Even though the decree is legally binding, there is still the potential for one party to not comply with the court’s orders, requiring further legal action.

Cost and Time – The process of obtaining a divorce decree can be expensive and time-consuming, mainly if there are disagreements between the parties.

Emotional Stress – The divorce decree finalizes the end of the marriage, which can be emotionally challenging for both spouses.

Limited Flexibility – The decree terms may not always fully account for changing circumstances or evolving needs of the parties and children.

Loss of Control – In a contested divorce, both parties may have to accept terms that are not entirely to their satisfaction, as the court’s decision may not align perfectly with their preferences.

Privacy Concerns – The divorce settlement details become a matter of public record, potentially compromising the parties’ privacy.

It’s important to note that the specific pros and cons of a divorce decree can vary depending on the individual circumstances of the divorce. The willingness of both parties to cooperate and the quality of legal representation also change these pros and cons. Seeking legal counsel and engaging in open communication is crucial to ensuring the decree’s terms are fair, reasonable, and in the best interests of all parties involved.

7. Making Informed Decisions: Factors to Consider

Seeking a divorce is a significant decision, and various factors must be considered to ensure you make informed choices. Here are key factors to take into account:

Reasons for Divorce

Consider the reasons for wanting a divorce. Are the issues resolvable, or is the marriage irretrievably broken? Understanding your motivations can help determine whether divorce is best for you.

Legal Requirements

Familiarize yourself with the legal requirements for divorce in your jurisdiction. These requirements may include residency, separation periods, and grounds for divorce.

Impact on Children

If you have children, consider how the divorce will affect them. You must address child custody, visitation, and child support issues. Focus on their well-being and emotional needs.

Work on a detailed parenting plan that addresses child custody, visitation, decision-making, and other matters related to your children. Focus on what’s in their best interests.

Financial Considerations

Assess your financial situation and consider how divorce will impact your income, assets, and debts. These include property division, spousal support (alimony), and child support.

Understand the rules and laws in your jurisdiction regarding the equitable distribution of property and debt. Determine which is marital property and which is excluded.

Discuss and negotiate spousal support (alimony) terms with your spouse or through mediation if applicable. Consider the duration and amount of support, if necessary.

Legal Representation

Decide if you want to hire an attorney to guide you through the divorce process. Using an experienced family law attorney can help provide you with essential advice and advocacy.

Dispute Resolution

Explore options to settle all issues outside of court. These include using mediation or arbitration to reach a collaborative divorce. These approaches can be less adversarial and may save time and money.


Organize and maintain essential documents, such as financial records, property deeds, and legal documents related to your marriage. These will be helpful during negotiations and legal proceedings.

Healthcare and Insurance

Understand how your healthcare, life insurance, and other benefits may be affected by divorce. Update your policies as needed.

Living Arrangements

Consider where you and your spouse will live during and after the divorce. Make housing arrangements and ensure they align with any court orders.

Communication and Cooperation

Maintain open and constructive communication with your spouse, especially when discussing important issues. Cooperation can make the process smoother and less contentious.

Think about your long-term goals and how divorce fits into your life plan. Create a post-divorce financial and life plan to ensure your stability and well-being.

Legal Proceedings

Understand the legal process, which may involve filing documents, attending court hearings, and potentially going to trial. Be prepared for the timeline and steps involved.

Consider couples’ counseling or divorce mediation to address underlying issues, improve communication, and potentially save the marriage if desired.

Self-care and Emotional Support

Prioritize self-care during this challenging time by eating well, exercising, and engaging in activities that promote your physical and emotional well-being.

Seek emotional support fromthose close to you or a therapist. Divorce can be emotionally challenging, and having a support system can help you cope.

Every divorce is unique, so it’s essential to modify your approach to your specific circumstances and needs. Consulting with an attorney and seeking emotional support can help you navigate the process clearly and confidently.

8. Finalizing Your Divorce: Agreement or Decree?

To finalize a divorce, you need a divorce decree. However, we have already ascertained that you cannot get one without a marital settlement agreement if you don’t want to fight a lengthy and costly contested divorce.

When you appear before the court for an uncontested divorce, you take the stand and swear to tell the truth. After verifying their identity, the parties must affirm that they were honest when providing the information for the marital settlement agreement and that they are satisfied with it. If the judge is satisfied, the divorce decree follows. Read more about the divorce process on