Recently, a reader sent a comment in response to a post in this blog. The comment asked for legal advice about what could be done in a specific situation in her case. I do not answer such requests for advice for someone who is not a client, but the comment did raise some interesting points about a situation that many encounter. What can you do if you want to change the terms of the property division in your divorce decree after it is final?
The simple answer is: "Nothing." The real answer is: "It depends." Note -- on kid issues, such as possession schedules, custody or child support, you can simply file a petition to modify. On property issues, it's a different ballgame.
Technically, there's nothing that can be done once the judgment is final. Of course, if the second thoughts hit soon enough, the judgment may not yet be final and you can file a motion for new trial or a motion to reconsider. That generally needs to be done within 30 days of when the judge signs the decree of divorce or signs an order overruling a motion for new trial or takes some similar action. These deadlines are critical. If you figure out on the 31st day or later that you want the ruling changed, you are probably out of luck.
If you realize the need to change the terms, or if your circumstances change dramatically, soon enough, you can file a motion with the court and try to convince the judge to set aside the original decree of divorce. With the economic turmoil we are experiencing, there might be a new situation that is compelling to a judge, but don't expect a judge to reverse a prior ruling just because things haven't turned out the way you expected. Getting the judge to set aside the decree of divorce is still a long shot.
But, whether you can actually do something to change the decree of divorce, outside of the first 30 days of when it is signed, depends. It depends on whether you and your ex-spouse can reach an agreement. In many cases, you're probably out of luck. If you don't get along with your ex, you probably can't get him or her to agree to change the terms unless you can show that the change would be in his or her best interest.
What can you do to avoid the problem of being trapped by property division terms that just don't work? Here are my suggestions.
1. Think ahead. It's hard to see into the future, but be aware of what's going on in the world and try to anticipate your needs in the future. Don't just blindly ask for 50% of everything. Put a little thought into your proposal for property division.
2. Don't burn your bridges. Sometimes, you can't help it, but other times there is a possibility of having a mature, civilized relationship with your ex-spouse. That is especially true when there are children involved. Even though you may strongly dislike your former mate, try to be nice because you may need a favor down the line.
3. Try to be agreeable. If you reach an agreement to settle your divorce, you probably have a better chance of reaching other agreements if you need to change things in the future. You can often do things by agreement that a judge would not, and perhaps could not, do.
4. Don't procrastinate. If you see a problem developing that relates to the property division, consult a lawyer and look at your options. Do so at the earliest possible time so that you might be within the initial 30-day window. If you are well past that time, still act as soon as possible so that your ex-spouse will not be as entrenched as he or she may be later on.
5. Be persistent. If a lawyer tells you there's nothing that can be done, consult with another lawyer. Some attorneys are more creative than others and some are more willing to try out-of-the-box approaches. Lawyers have different experiences and perspectives, so keep looking around until you have exhausted the possibilities.
6. Find a reason for your ex-spouse to agree. Put yourself in your ex's shoes. What would entice him or her to agree to do what you want done? What's the benefit to him/her? Be prepared to sweeten the pot a little and give up a little extra to get the deal done.
7. Put your agreement in writing. If you are able to reach an agreement with your ex-spouse, be sure to get it in writing and spell it out so the agreement is clear. If nothing else, create a contract that is binding for both of you.
I don't mean to create false hope here. If you want to change the terms of the property division in your divorce decree, your chances are slim. But you do have a chance, if you act as soon as possible.