Divorce is never an easy proposition. Emotions are high, and it’s easy to begin to feel overwhelmed with decisions and changes. Eventually, you reach a point where you just want it to be over, so you may not pay close attention to some of the details of your settlement.
When that happens, you may wonder if you have any recourse. Once your divorce is finalized, can you amend the divorce decree in Washington State? What process would be involved in amending the decree? These are questions we hope to answer for you here.
What Causes the Need for Amendment of a Divorce Decree in Washington State?
The simplest explanation of the cause for a modification of a divorce decree is that the divorced or legally separated couple has filed post-decree litigation. In other words, they disagree about issues after their divorce is finalized.
Many times, the litigation stems from one person believing the other has done something that violated the original court order. For example, the person responsible for paying child or spousal support hasn’t paid it. Another reason for filing a modification is that information was hidden in the original divorce proceedings—like assets or debts—that should have been disclosed. The people can attempt to work out their differences, but it can often lead to the filing of contempt charges to get the court to enforce or modify the original order.
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What Issues Are Typically Addressed in a Post-Decree Motion?
Typically, issues related to custody or child support are the ones that are the most likely to result in a post-decree motion. Various factors can contribute to filing for an amendment to a divorce decree. A move to a new location, one or both parents remarrying, a change in financial situation, living conditions, the child’s financial needs, or the best interests of the children involved are all valid reasons to petition for a modification to the original decree.
The original parenting plan may no longer work, so you need to modify it. That means that the responsibilities, visitation, and parenting time clauses to the original decree are subject to change. Other issues under fire are also school, health care, and even religious training. Trying to alienate the children from their other parents is another reason the courts consider valid for a post-decree modification request.
Alimony, or spousal support, may also be subject to change in a post-decree motion. Changes in employment, being fired or laid off, a change in living conditions, a remarriage, deterioration of physical or mental health, substance abuse, trouble with the law, and going to jail can all be used as reasons to file a post-decree motion. The judge will look at the facts of the case to decide if anyone is trying to avoid paying alimony or if there are legitimate reasons to petition for modification.
The point of a post-decree amendment is revising the divorce decree to reflect the current lives and needs of everyone involved in the case, regardless of age. Circumstances and conditions change routinely. So, if your original divorce decree doesn’t accurately represent your current situation, don’t be afraid to file for a modification.
What’s the Process for Requesting Amendment of a Divorce Decree in Washington State?
To state the obvious, an amendment to a divorce decree can only happen after the divorce is finalized. Many think that finalized means precisely that, final. However, either party can request changes to the divorce agreement. The two reasons for modification are a change in circumstances or a breach of contract.
Since the main reason for requesting a modification is a change in circumstances, it’s best if you wait some time before requesting an amendment. You want to be able to show that a significant change has occurred in your circumstances.
The person who wants the amendment must file a petition requesting a modification to the original decree. Then, they must serve a copy of the petition to their ex-spouse. The petitioner may also need to provide evidence of a significant change in the circumstances since the original decree was ordered.
The court may choose to grant the modification if there is evidence of a significant change. If the respondent contests the amendment, though, a new hearing may be required. If the court questions the significance of the change in circumstances, a new hearing may be required.
Steps to Appealing a Divorce Decree in Washington State
Regardless of the area, the steps to modifying a divorce decree are similar. Either or both spouses can appeal the original judge’s decision to an appellate court. It’s unusual for an appellate court to overturn the first judge’s decision in divorce cases. Settlement agreements can’t usually be overturned if both parties agree to the settlement unless there is some kind of enforceability issue.
- First, you must file a notice of appeal with the court, and you must serve the notice to the opposing party. There are strict deadlines for filing a notice of appeal. Failing to follow the procedures for filing your appeal could mean you lose your right to appeal.
- Once you’ve filed your notice with the court and served the appropriate parties, a record on appeal that includes the clerk’s records and the court reporter’s trial transcript is created.
- Your attorney and the attorney for the other party must create and submit an appellate brief. This brief is the legal argument for the reasons for the appeal supported by documentation of appropriate laws, statutes, and references to the evidence and transcript already on file. Based on the appellate briefs, the attorneys could be granted a chance to make oral arguments.
- Oral arguments, if granted, will only last for 15 or 30 minutes per side, and no new evidence can be presented. No witnesses can be called to the appeals court either.
- Once the appeals court has weighed the documentation and listened to any oral arguments it wants to hear, it will rule on the case. It typically takes 30-60 days for the appellate court to decide once it receives all the information. If it doesn’t uphold the trial court’s decision, the case will be sent back for modification of the decision or a new trial.
An appeals process can be expensive. A request for modification is less expensive, and many states provide specific forms for you to complete to request a modification.
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What Parts of a Divorce Decree Can Be Amended?
Each state has its own procedures for modifying a divorce decree and what parts of the decree can be changed. Generally, orders related to custody, child support, visitation, and spousal support can be amended after the divorce decree has been finalized.
Usually, the court can’t modify a division of marital property unless the original decree allows for it. Sometimes, a final decree will allow a reopening of marital property divisions. For example, if there were forgotten assets, the original property division order might be able to be amended. Also, if both parties agree to amend the marital property division order, the court may allow it to be modified.
What Constitutes a Material Change in Circumstances?
Most courts require that the person who wants the divorce decree amended must show there has been a significant change in circumstances since the final decree was issued. Ultimately, the decision on whether the decree can be modified rests with the court that issued the original decree.
Each state has its own criteria for determining whether a change is considered material or significant. The most common significant changes that could justify the amendment of a decree include:
- A change in the financial situation of either person. For example, if the non-custodial parent can’t make the child support payments as ordered or the custodial parent loses the ability to support the child.
- A change that would significantly change the child’s life. For example, if a parent loses a job or develops a chronic illness, child support or custody orders associated with the divorce decree may need to be changed so the child continues to receive proper care.
- The relocation of either parent changes the ability to continue with the current custody or visitation arrangements.
- Changes in state laws or requirements govern the orders within the final divorce decree.
Violating an order within the final divorce decree can cause legal issues. If a parent doesn’t follow court orders regarding custody or child support, they can be held in contempt of court.
If you can’t follow an order issued within the final divorce decree, you must request an amendment to the decree rather than failing to meet the obligations you have. As long as requests are made in the best interests of a child or due to a material change in circumstances, the court will likely permit the requested modification. If both parties agree to the modification, the court will typically grant the request without too much question.
Call Today for a Free Case Evaluation From an Experienced Washington Divorce Attorney
Once you have your finalized divorce decree, you may find that the decree needs to be modified at some point. Certain portions of the decree can be amended if you demonstrate there has been a substantial change to your circumstances. When you file a request for modification, an experienced attorney can give you advice regarding which parts of your decree can be modified and which ones can’t. Contact the Aberdeen Law Firm for direction with filing for an amendment to your divorce decree in Washington State.
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