Sometimes errors are made in a divorce decree. A common error is that some property has not been divided, for example a stock account was overlooked. Perhaps a business was valued incorrectly, and it turns out to be worth far more (or less) than the original estimate of value. In some cases, assets or accounts have been hidden, and only discovered after entry of the divorce decree. Perhaps false or misleading values were provided in discovery. When these things occur, can they be fixed after the divorce is entered?
The answer is possibly. Courts favor finality. This means that judges do not like to re-open cases and give a party a “re-do”. In order to get this “re-do”, specific factors have to be presented to the court. There are also strict time limits for presenting these factors to a court.
To fix a divorce decree, a party must usually file a “motion to vacate”. This is governed by court rules, known as CR60. Generally speaking, if an error has occurred that needs to be fixed, parties have one year from the date of the decree of dissolution to file their motion to vacate and ask the court to fix the decree. If there has been fraud, such as hiding assets, giving false valuations, altering documents, etc., then parties have more than one year to fix it. These rules are very complex so it is best to sum it up this way: If you discover an error, bring it to the court’s attention as soon as possible. The law in Washington favors requests that are brought as soon as possible after entry of the divorce decree. Delay almost always hurts.
Some errors cannot be fixed. If you receive a stock account that suddenly plummets in value, there is no solution to this absent some kind of fraud. This is true even if the other party’s stock account rockets up in value at the same time. Also, if you received a bad result because you failed to present proper evidence at trial, there is probably no solution available to you. There are always exceptions to all of these general rules. It is important to remember that the best strategy is always to present your very best case at trial, mediation or settlement. Judges do not like to fix decrees, and even if they are willing to do so, you will have to jump through additional hoops to get them fixed at additional cost (if it is even possible to do so). It is always easier to do it right the first time.
One thing that can always be fixed is a situation where some property has not been divided. A forgotten stock account is a common situation as is an extra parcel of undeveloped land. Whole life insurance policies are another commonly overlooked item. College GET accounts are sometimes forgotten. These can all be divided through a relatively simple motion to the court. The court will always divide the undivided asset, but again, this should be brought to the court’s attention as soon as it is discovered.
Every judge wants to make things right. They strive to treat all parties fairly. However, there are limits to what they are allowed to do. The best defense is to always do thorough discovery and get accurate valuations before the divorce is final. However, when things go wrong, there are some remedies that are available to you. If you discover some kind of problem with your divorce decree, call an attorney as soon as possible and discuss possible solutions.