Marital Settlement Agreement vs. Divorce Decree: Comparing Terms

Marital settlement agreements and divorce decrees contain details about your life, plans, and property at the end of your marriage. To an outsider, the two things can look similar, but they are different documents. 

Consider a marital settlement agreement, also known as an MSA, to be a divorce draft. A divorce decree follows the plans a couple has crafted in their marital settlement agreement. 

Let’s dig into the differences so you can determine which document you need and understand where you are on the path to divorce. 

Defining settlement agreements and divorce decrees

Settlement agreements and divorce decrees are plans for your life after divorce. These documents are similar yet different. This table explains key differences: 

Marital settlement agreement 

Divorce decree

Typically signed by a notary public

Judge signs

Not required; some people go to court instead

Required to end your marriage

Can be done between two people 

May involve the help of a lawyer 

Contains details about children, assets, and debts

Contains details about children, assets, and debts 

Can become part of a divorce decree

Is a standalone document 

What is a marital settlement agreement? 

A marital settlement agreement is, as the name implies, a product of negotiation between two people who want to end their union. In some states, they’re called separation agreements, divorce settlement agreements, or stipulations of settlement. No matter what you call them, they can be part of your divorce. 

A typical marital settlement agreement includes details about the following items:

  • Child custody 
  • Visitation arrangements 
  • Child support 
  • Property distribution 
  • Debt distribution 
  • Distribution of shared business assets 
  • Waivers of rights 

Marital settlement agreements become final once a court issues a judgment of divorce that incorporates the agreement. But you don’t need a court to work up these documents. People can collaborate independently and submit proposals as a final plan for their lives after the split.

This example from Georgia can help you understand what a typical marital settlement agreement looks like. Hello Divorce offers a flat-fee online marital settlement tool that can help you create your own.

What is a divorce decree?

A divorce decree is a court order that legally ends your marriage. This document contains vital information about when your marriage began and ended. Once a judge signs it, you’re legally considered single. 

Divorce decrees are court records, so they’re available for public inspection in most states, such as Oregon. They can include the same details found in the corresponding marital settlement agreement. 

Sometimes, people file marital settlement agreements as attachments with the courts. But sometimes, people copy the arrangements they’ve made from the marital settlement agreement to draft divorce decrees that they then file with the courts. 

This example from Hawaii can help you understand what a typical divorce decree looks like. 

When does a marital settlement agreement become legally binding?

Marital settlement agreements represent time and negotiation. Two people work together on plans for their future. Sometimes, they use mediators to assist them in agreeing on difficult matters. Despite all of this hard work, a marital settlement agreement doesn’t automatically become legally binding.

Typically, people write up marital settlement agreements, sign them, and get them notarized. Then, they incorporate their paperwork into divorce documents. 

In most states, a judge must examine your plans to make sure they adhere to state divorce law. For example, a judge must make sure one party isn’t keeping too much of an asset or accepting too much debt. A judicial review helps ensure that your divorce complies with local rules and regulations. 

After a judge reviews your plans, the documents are ready for filing. 

A judge signs your final divorce decree, and it’s filed with the local court. At that point, your arrangements become legally binding. If you don’t keep the promises outlined in your documents, your former spouse could take you back to court for damages. 

Can you change your mind?

Divorce negotiations are difficult. Sometimes, people make arrangements that they regret later on. Sometimes, you can reexamine your arrangements and devise a new plan. But at some point, the decisions you make become final. 

A marital settlement agreement represents a negotiation. The agreement can be revised multiple times before it becomes part of your divorce decree. But once it is signed and notarized, it typically can’t be modified. 

Things become even more complicated when your marital settlement agreement becomes part of your divorce decree. Once a judge signs that document, your plans are final and can’t be changed unless you go back to court. 

You could file for shifts in your arrangements due to issues such as the following:

  • Fraud: If you can prove your spouse lied about property, assets, or debts, you could go back to court and ask for a revision. But you’d need evidence to back up your claims.
  • Mistakes: If you and your former spouse agree that you forgot about something while completing the paperwork, you could ask for a revision.

In general, it’s best to pay close attention to any documents you’re writing and signing. Don’t plan on making changes later. Instead, pay attention during the process so you get it right the first time. 

Which document do you need?

If you’ve just started the divorce process, you must make decisions about your assets, debts, children, and future. 

A blank marital settlement agreement contains multiple empty boxes. Each represents a conversation with your ex. You could use this document to negotiate. If you work together well, you may be able to hold that conversation independently. If not, consider asking a mediator to help. 

With a completed and signed marital settlement agreement, you’re ready to move on to a divorce decree. Use your MSA to prove that you’ve agreed on the core details that will dictate your new lives. 

If you can’t agree on the details of your settlement agreement, you could move forward without it, but this path is far from ideal. You must go to court to argue for your rights,and you must allow a judge to intervene and make important decisions for you. 

The road to divorce is long and expensive if you move through the courts. The quickest and least expensive way to negotiate a split with your partner is to use a marital settlement agreement and then move on to a divorce decree. 

If you and your ex agree on key terms, this simplifies the process. If you’re far apart on some items, as we’ve mentioned, mediation can be a big help. At Hello Divorce, we have certified mediators who work with couples at a flat hourly rate, which you can read about here. We also offer MSA reviews and a host of other services.

To learn more about what Hello Divorce offers, schedule a free 15-minute phone call.


Marital Settlement Agreement. (July 2020). New York City Bar. 
Settlement Agreement Without Minor Children. (October 2015). Superior Court of Fulton County State of Georgia. 
How to Get a Copy of a Divorce Decree or Certificate. (July 2023). USAGov. 
Divorce Records. Multnomah County, Oregon. 
Divorce Decree Without Children. (July 2018). Family Court of the Second Circuit, State of Hawaii.
Divorce Specialists
After spending years in toxic and broken family law courts, and seeing that no one wins when “lawyer up,” we knew there was an opportunity to do and be better. We created Hello Divorce to the divorce process easier, affordable, and completely online. Our guiding principles are to make sure both spouses feel heard, supported, and set up for success as they move into their next chapter in life.