I recently watched the British sitcom Motherland — when a familiar subplot line was presented: one of the characters finds out she’s not actually divorced.
Despite separating from her insufferable (not so ex) husband for four years and having worked with a divorce attorney, Liz discovers she’s still technically married because she never received an official Judgment of Dissolution from the court (a “decree absolute” as it’s called in the UK).
If you think this is purely a work of fiction, think again.
I’ve seen it happen more than once: someone thinks they are completely divorced because they simply and only filed for divorce.
This isn’t how it works, though. There’s a big difference between filing for divorce and being divorced.
You’re not legally divorced until you go through the entered divorce process, as required by law, and obtain an entered Judgment of Dissolution from the court stating the specific date upon which you are officially divorced. If you don’t follow through on getting the judgment, you’ll hit some complications down the line.
Here’s what happens if you fail to complete the divorce process and how to see it through to the end.
What Happens If I’m Not Officially Divorced?
Only one thing will finalize a divorce: an official Judgment of Dissolution from the court.
If you’re not officially divorced, you’re still married in every legal sense.
No matter how little you interact with your ex-partner, without an entered judgment from the court, you are obligated to legally operate as a married person (think taxes, bills, childcare responsibilities, etc.).
This is where it gets complicated, especially if you enter a new relationship.
Here are a few of the possible ramifications of not finalizing a divorce:
You May Enter A Bigamous Relationship
If your divorce was never finalized and you enter a new marriage, your second marriage is invalid. This is known as bigamy, and it’s illegal in every state. So yes, it’s a big deal.
But don’t worry, you’re not going to jail. In this situation, people may have two options:
- They can work with their ex to complete and finalize the divorce process and then request that the court enter the judgment nunc pro tunc (literally means “now for then”). This means that you request the court enter the judgment as of a past date (a date before your second marriage) so that you are single before the subsequent marriage.
- You can seek to annul or invalidate the second marriage — if that’s what you want to do. An annulment is different from a divorce in that it determines the marriage was never valid in the first place. However, make sure you meet the requirements to file for an annulment.
It is more than likely that there won’t be any repercussions if you can prove you didn’t know you or your partner was already married. But it’s certainly not something anyone wants to deal with, especially when entering a new and exciting chapter of life.
You May Be Fined for Filing Taxes Incorrectly
If you’re legally married, then you’re obligated to file taxes as Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately. But if you don’t know you’re still married, you’re likely inclined to file your taxes as Single.
What’s the issue? Filing taxes incorrectly can put you at risk of heavy fines and, in extreme cases, even jail time. Most of the time, the IRS will correct your taxes if they find the information inaccurate through an audit. You may also amend your tax forms yourself after filing using Form 1040X.
The only way to avoid the drama is to ensure your divorce is completely buttoned up before selecting “Single” on your tax documents.
You May Dredge Up Difficult Emotions
Imagine thinking you closed the book on one chapter of your life just to have it rear its ugly head.
Going through the motions of a divorce is mentally and physically taxing, especially if you had a bad falling out with your ex.
This is only further complicated if you’re dating somebody new. While a good partner will be understanding of your situation, the point stands that it’s something you’re better off avoiding altogether. Get the final word on your divorce and avoid unnecessary stress for yourself and others in your life.
You can see why it’s critical to finalize your divorce. Don’t assume all the wheels are in motion just because you’ve filed with the court.
Also, don’t assume your lawyer is taking all of the necessary steps to finalize your divorce. Stay on top of your attorney every step of the way to make sure the process is continued until completion.
I’ve often seen attorneys forget a case even exists when a client doesn’t follow up and ask questions regarding their case. Remember, this is your life – stay informed!
How to Finalize Your Divorce
To finalize your divorce, you’ll need an official Judgment of Dissolution from the court. The only way to get this is to complete the divorce process through every step.
The divorce process varies by state. If you’re in California, refer to this detailed breakdown of divorcing in California.
Once you’ve gone through the process of divorcing — filing, serving papers, gathering and exchanging documents, and going to mediation or trial — your case will be settled.
At this point, a final agreement is drafted as a Judgment submitted to the court to review and sign.
Once the court approves and signs off on the Judgment, you are officially divorced once you receive the filed and signed Judgment back from the court.
As stated above, if you’re trying to dissolve your first marriage while you’re already married a second time, you must request that the court enter the judgment nunc pro tunc to a date before your second marriage.
Keep in mind this is a very simplified version of the divorce process and should not be considered to be legal advice. But it should still be apparent that finalizing divorce extends well beyond filing the papers — that’s only the first step.
Final Words: Be Diligent and Stay Resilient
Divorce is complicated and emotionally charged. It’s no surprise that sometimes, things fall through the cracks. After all, it’s not a process most people have experience with.
The best way to ensure your divorce is finalized is to stay on top of your case and never assume things are always being done correctly. You are your biggest advocate. Don’t be afraid to be tenacious and follow up regularly on all aspects of your case.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the divorce process, don’t hesitate to schedule a consultation call with me. My practice is dedicated to empowering people with information to confidently navigate their divorce.