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I'm Divorced! Well, Almost

Litigating a divorce requires both spouses and the divorce lawyers to devote a huge amount of energy, money, emotion, and time. Even if the divorce is an uncontested divorce, the process can suck up a lot of energy. You can imagine that when the judge drops the gavel for the last time, everyone involved breathes a sigh of relief, knowing that the case is over... or is it?

The answer is, "not quite." You see, the day that the judge finishes the trial, deciding to grant the divorce, and resolving issues surrounding child custody property, and spousal support, is not truly the "divorce day." The divorce is not final until the judge signs documents officially "entering" the judgment into court records, and that may not happen for a matter of weeks after that last trial day. The result: even though no issues remain to resolve, and you know that the judge has granted a divorce, you are still married until the day the judge signs the documents entering the order.

This is common frustration for family law lawyers. Nevada's divorce laws describe how judges can or must decide questions of support, custody, and property division, along with the divorcing couple's rights in those instances. The laws, however, do not address certain practical concerns that virtually every divorcing couple faces. Questions such as, "When can I change my insurance coverages? When can I change my bank accounts?" If a spouse has changed his or her name, additional questions arise, such as, "When can I go back to my pre-married name? When can I change my social security card? When can I change my driver's license?"

The judge can sometimes enter temporary orders while the case is in process, which further complicates matters. For example, the judge can limit the parties' ability to change insurance policies, sell property, take children out of town or out of state, living arrangements, or a number of other matters. What happens to those temporary orders when the trial ends, but the judge has not yet entered the final order?

The existence of a "waiting period" between the time the judge issues the judgment, and the time the judge enters that judgment, making it official, is not unique to Nevada. It is a feature common to the court systems throughout the country. It can be a frustrating to get to the end of a divorce case, only to wait for the case to be over officially. It's like having a legal separation without the legal.

Though exasperating, this feature is an unavoidable consequence of the court system's need to document and track what it does. Judgments (divorces, for instance) affect people's lives in multiple ways, and much of that impact requires documentation. If you win a judgment that someone owes you money, you need proof that the order to pay exists. Simply saying, "Judge Smith said so" is not going to be enough - you need a copy of the official judgment, and the court has to have that judgment on file.

Compare it to a situation in which a teenager, let's call her Susan, asks Parent #1 if she can go on a date, and gets permission. As Susan is walking out, Parent #2 asks where she's going, and Susan says, "Parent #1 said I could go out." Even if Parent #2 checks with Parent #1, the process is very simple and very quick.

Now, let's make Susan's house more like a court system, where everyone has to have documentation for everything. Now Susan has to submit a written request to go on the date, and Parent #1 has to read it, decide whether to give permission, and then write and sign a permission form. Susan is at a disadvantage under this system because she has to wait for Parent #1 to write and sign the form, but she's at an advantage when Parent #2 questions her, because she only needs to show the signed permission form.

Parties to a divorce are like Susan in the second example. The judge has approved the divorce (the end of trial), but they have to wait for the judge to prepare, sign, and file the judgment (the "permission form"). Imagine that Susan's parents had 200 children - each child would have to wait for a parent to get to his or her permission form, and no permission could be immediate.

The courts are in a similar position. In 2011, Nevada courts granted more than 15,000 divorces. That is more than 180 divorces for each of the 22 family court court judges statewide.

Clarity about the wait is nice, but it isn't enough. Understanding why they have to wait for the judge to enter the final order does not tell a divorcing couple what to do with their insurance policies, name changes, or anything else. Fortunately, answers to these questions exist.

First, those temporary orders that judges sometimes issue. The first place to check for the order's duration is the order itself; the order ends when the judge says so. If the temporary order will end before the judge enters the final order, you have to ask the judge to extend the temporary order or issue another one. If the judge enters the final order before the temporary order expires, the final order overrides the temporary, and everyone follows the final order.

Second, your insurance policies and bank accounts. The first question you want to ask is whether the judge has ordered you or your soon-to-be-ex to do or not do anything related to these. Do (or don't do) whatever the judge orders.

If the judge has not issued an order, check with your insurer and bank. Most insurance companies deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis. Typically, you can designate whether you want individual or family coverage for your health insurance, and you can change that designation when a significant event (like a birth, adoption, or divorce) happens. If you and your spouse have coverage in the same family plan, the company may require that you wait until the divorce is final before allowing changes.

Auto insurance companies typically prefer that married couples have a single policy. They also may not require the divorce to be final before allowing changes. Many will allow couples to terminate the shared policy and switch to individual policies with a simple phone call indicating that the couple is in the process of divorcing.

Bank accounts are easiest to handle, since banks do not typically require couples to have joint accounts. When you are ready to change your accounts from joint to individual, contact your bank to find out what it requires. Be prepared: you and your soon-to-be-ex will usually have to change those accounts together.

Finally, name changes. If your name will change after the divorce, you will have to wait for the judge to enter the final order before you can do anything. The Social Security Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles, insurance companies, and even banks require official documentation of any name changes. Just as you had to show the marriage certificate to change your name when you got married, you must show the final divorce order to change your name after a divorce.

In the meantime, though, contact every office with which you want to change your name to find out what they'll need. The divorce order will show your new name, but you usually have to show one or more documents establishing your identity, like a birth certificate, your current license, a passport, or even a current bill or bank statement. Gather the documents you need while waiting for the final divorce order. That way, when the order comes, you are ready to go.

Follow the judge's orders, call your insurance companies and banks, and be prepared to wait a little for that final order. Divorces are difficult, but with a little planning and patience, you can handle those practical concerns.

For more information on when your divorce is final or other divorce questions, contact

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