Can I Make Changes to My Divorce Decree?

What is a divorce decree? It is a court order that makes your divorce final and establishes the terms of your relationship to your ex-spouse after divorce: who will receive which assets, who will pay what debts, what your parenting arrangements will be for your children, whether one of you will pay spousal support to the other, and more. In a sense, it is a law that governs just the two of you.

Most of the time, you and your ex will have been very involved in setting the terms of your divorce or dissolution agreement. Most Ohio divorces are resolved by settlement rather than trial, and even in the case of a trial, the divorcing spouses have usually agreed to at least some of the terms of the divorce. But what happens when, after the divorce is final, you find those terms need to change?

You may want to change your Ohio divorce decree because you believe the judge made a mistake applying the law in your case. Maybe circumstances have changed dramatically since the divorce, and the terms of the parenting orders and/or child support no longer make sense. Or perhaps your ex knowingly concealed assets from you during the divorce process, and the division of property you agreed to wasn’t fair in light of the facts your ex-spouse hid from you.

Whether you can change a divorce decree in Ohio depends on what you want to change, why you want to change it, and when you try to do so as there are time limits on certain actions.

When (and How) Can You Change an Ohio Divorce Decree?

There are a few situations in which you can change a divorce decree. If you had a trial, you may be able to appeal the court’s ruling. If there has been a significant change of circumstances, you may be able to modify provisions regarding child custody or support, and in some cases, spousal support (alimony). Finally, you may be able to reopen your divorce case in certain very limited circumstances.

Appealing an Ohio Divorce Matter

If you believe that the judge in your divorce case made a mistake in applying Ohio law to the facts of your case, you may want to appeal the decision. You must request an appeal within 30 days after the judge’s decision. You may, in a rare case, be able to file an appeal beyond 30 days if you can show good cause for doing so, but you cannot count on the appellate court allowing that; it is best to file within the 30-day window if at all  possible.

You cannot appeal a judge’s decision just because you didn’t like the outcome. The judge must have committed some legal error. Your attorney can help you identify if you have grounds for an appeal. You should also be aware that no new evidence can be introduced in the appeal; the appellate court uses  the record from the trial, as well as your attorney’s legal briefs and argument, to decide the appeal. Appeals can be expensive and complicated, so discuss the costs and potential benefits with your attorney before deciding to appeal.

Modifying a Divorce Decree in Ohio

The most common way to change a decision like this after the divorce is final is to modify it. Certain aspects of a decree, such as a property settlement, generally cannot be modified. People can retain the right to amend the property and debt division by agreement, but this needs to be spelled out quite exactly.  However, other aspects, especially those relating to children, may need to be changed. As every parent knows, life with children changes over time, and sometimes child custody (allocation of parental rights and responsibilities) needs to change, too. The court always retains the ability to make changes regarding parenting issues.

The terms of spousal support (alimony) may be modified as well, so long as the spouses have agreed to make spousal support modifiable in their Separation Agreement. (If a judge decides to award spousal support in a decree, as opposed to spouses agreeing to spousal support in a Separation Agreement, it will almost always remain modifiable for a longer duration than a few years).

If ex-spouses agree to change a modifiable portion of their divorce decree, they can sign an agreement and submit it to the court for signature approval, but the modification will take effect when (and only when) the court signs off on the agreement and approves the modification.

If the spouses do not agree to a modification, one spouse may file a motion requesting the Court to modify the court order. For the court to grant a modification, there must be a significant, material, and substantial change of circumstances since the previous order. If the requested modification relates to parenting issues, it must also be shown to be in the best interest of the child.

What counts as a “material and substantial change?” There’s no exhaustive list, but common circumstances prompting a modification of parenting orders or support include:

  • A job loss or promotion of one parent, leading to a significant change in income, for modification of child support or health insurance
  • One parent wants to relocate out of state for a new job or relationship and parenting time needs to change
  • A parent is incarcerated and the children need to live with the other parent
  • A parent abuses the child or begins to reside with someone who is abusive
  • A parent develops a substance abuse problem that affects the ability to care for the child
  • The child is diagnosed with a serious illness that makes the existing parenting arrangement inappropriate

Reopening an Ohio Divorce Case

Reopening a divorce after a decree has been issued is difficult, and for good reason. Former spouses need to be able to rely on the order’s terms, such as which property belongs to them after the divorce. However, in some situations, it is appropriate to reopen a divorce case.

For example, if one spouse concealed assets during the divorce so that they would not be subject to division, that is fraud, and warrants reopening the case so those assets can be appropriately distributed and so that the wrongdoer is not unfairly enriched. The spouse who was deceived may receive a distributive award or other compensation.

A divorce case may also be reopened if one spouse was forced to sign a settlement under duress or threat, or if there was a material mistake of fact that affected the fairness of the property division.

Get a Lawyer’s Help if You Need to Change Your Divorce Circumstance

Regardless of the reason you think you need to change the details of your decree, if you think there has been a change in your family’s circumstances, speak with an experienced family law attorney. They can advise you and, if appropriate, help you petition for a modification of your divorce decree.

To learn more about your divorce decree, contact Melissa Graham-Hurd & Associates to schedule a consultation.