The Perils of Incomplete Divorce Settlements

Contemplating a divorce? Too bad; it happens, even if you have tried to make the marriage work. But a word of caution based on my career in consumer protection and legal training: If you own property together, make sure the divorce decree properly handles the division of real estate. I read too many questions in newspapers and magazines from spouses who ask some expert what to do now to get their name off a mortgage for a house they no longer live in. Or perhaps the question is how to get the now far away ex to sign documents authorizing sale of the property. No fault divorce makes dissolution of a marriage a relatively simple legal process compared to proving someone at fault. Key to completing a process of divorce is determining who gets what personal property and what real property (the house, the condo, whatever). While the personal property can get sticky and troublesome, the bigger problem is with the home.

While the laws vary from state to state on how to accomplish the task, the one thing all have in common is that the parties must agree in writing and file with the divorce settlement agreement a description of who is getting what. If one party is going to keep the house, arrangements have to spelled out to deed the house to that spouse alone. If there is a mortgage, it needs to get refinanced to include only the spouse that keeps the house.  These details are what you are paying an attorney for. If you think you can and the state allows you to represent yourself in the divorce process, you better make sure you know how to accomplish these details. There is certainly no excuse for the attorney screwing this up. There really is no excuse for a judge or magistrate signing off on a divorce decree without reviewing the property settlement (or existence of it). All too often the process is handled by clerks who also should, but perhaps do not, know better. If all is not done correctly at the time the divorce is finalized, it gets really difficult to fix it later.