Ahhh, April. This month always feels like a fresh start for me. The sun emerges and it starts to truly feel like spring. April also happens to be my birth month, so I can’t help but feel refreshed and energized at the start of this season.
There’s a reason why “spring cleaning” is a thing, and this year, home and office organization are all the rage. If you’ve managed to avoid learning the name Marie Kondo or the phrase “spark joy” in 2019, I commend you. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I highly recommend the Netflix special about tidying up and decluttering, which has the masses taking spring cleaning to the max this season.
If you’re already on the bandwagon, you have probably come across a big pile of paperwork you’ve “filed” in the corner of a spare room somewhere, dubiously eyeing it and dreading the task of sorting through what you must keep and what can be discarded. If you’ve been through a divorce, you probably have a box or two of old court documents lying around, taking up space and reminding you of a less pleasant time in your life. You are probably all too eager to toss it entirely (the likelihood of divorce paperwork “sparking joy” is slim!) but unfortunately there are a few things you really need to keep on file. In a perfect world, we would recommend that you keep your entire file, but if that is impossible for you, here are the highlights on the necessities:
- Your Judgment of Divorce: This document is the single most important paperwork from your divorce. Your Judgment of Divorce proves that you are legally divorced. It also proves that you are free to remarry! It should have a gold seal on it from the time it was entered. This copy is incredibly important. When transferring assets, applying for refinancing on a loan or even changing your name after divorce, various agencies may ask to see a Gold Seal Copy of your Judgment of Divorce. And while you can make copies of the judgment of divorce to your heart’s content, don’t give the Gold Seal copy away! If you lose it, you can always obtain a new Gold Seal copy from the Courthouse in the County where you got divorced, but they will charge you a fee. I highly recommend keeping this document in a safe place, like a safe deposit box or fireproof box in your house.
- Your Marital Settlement Agreement: For the majority of litigants who dissolve their marriage by way of agreement instead of a trial, you should have a marital settlement agreement, sometimes called a property settlement agreement, which outlines all of the issues in your divorce and how you’ve agreed to resolve them. This agreement probably addresses issues like alimony, divisions of assets and debts, custody, child support, contribution to college costs, filing taxes, and other miscellaneous items. It probably outlines each party’s respective rights and obligations, as some things set forth in your agreement may not happen right away. For example, if you have adolescent children but your agreement outlines how their college expenses will be funded, portions of the agreement may not “kick in” until many years later. You’ll need a copy of your agreement on hand to know what you are contractually obligated to do and when. Speaking of obligations, it should be no surprise that sometimes people don’t always abide by the terms of their agreement. If you find yourself in a situation where your ex-spouse is not living up to his/her end of the deal, and you need to enforce the agreement in some way (whether it’s filing a motion in court or trying to go to mediation) you’ll absolutely need a copy of your agreement to decipher exactly which terms are not being complied with.
- Your Case Information Statements: These are the forms you filled out during your divorce which set forth your income, assets, liabilities, and expenses. This document was critical in litigating and resolving your divorce, but may become relevant again in a post-divorce situation, if you have outstanding issues to address. For example, if you want to file an application to modify your alimony obligation (or need to defend against one) your Case Information Statement will have helpful information about what the financial state of affairs was at the time you got divorced. If you or your ex-spouse is trying to show a change of circumstances, it is helpful to know what those circumstances were at the time so you can see how they’ve changed. If you have a copy of your ex-spouse’s Case Information Statement, you should definitely keep that, too.
- All Orders entered in your Case: I like to think of Court Orders as the Cliff’s Notes for a case. While Court Orders don’t tell you everything about the history of a case, they give you a fairly accurate abbreviated summary of what happened and when. If you ever have to recall who filed a motion or when a critical event in your divorce took place, a Court Order is a great first place to look to hone in on a date or an outcome.
- Any Transcripts or Recordings that you Ordered: In the context of a post-divorce dispute, these documents may or may not be relevant later on, but they are still worth keeping because, in order to retrieve another copy from the Court, you’ll have to pay a fee. Transcripts can be quite costly, so there’s no point in purchasing the same thing twice if you already have a copy on hand.
I must reiterate that it is important to keep all of your old court records if you have the space, including all of the letters and emails your attorneys may have sent throughout the litigation. While your attorney has an obligation to keep your files for at least seven years, you may need to pay for the copying costs to get those. Depending on the amount of time that has passed, your records may no longer be available. If you are tech savvy and can digitize all of your records, that’s even more so a reason to keep everything. But if you simply can’t, keep in mind these spring cleaning tips to make sure you have the most important legal documents ready and accessible if you need them. Happy cleaning!
Katherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in the Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Katherine at (973-548-3324) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.