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What is a Decree?

By Mona D. Rigdon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Within the legal system, a decree refers to a rule of law issued by someone in authority, such as a head of state. The term more commonly refers to an order of judgment made by a court of equity. A court generally issues this type of edict after hearing a specific lawsuit but can issue temporary decrees as well. Temporary decrees are called "interlocutory" and stand until a final decree is entered at the conclusion of the suit. A decree also can be a proclamation made by an official such as a head of state, and it typically involves a new rule of law.

Court orders are referred to as decrees in certain types of courts. These types of courts are known as courts of equity, and they include bankruptcy, divorce, admiralty and probate courts. Decrees have the same force of law as orders issued in courts of law, such as civil or criminal courts. Although the terms are similar in meaning, they are distinctive to the specific court in which they are used.

In certain types of courts, judges issue interlocutory decrees. Common instances when a judge might issue interlocutory decrees include child custody, divorce, guardianship and adoption. In each of these instances, there is a justifiable need to have someone appointed as a responsible party to protect someone else or the estate of someone else. This necessitates entry of a temporary proclamation until the court can put a final hearing on the docket to hear all evidence and make a final determination, but it does not settle the final dispute.

Final decrees are issued after the suit has been tried and the judge has made a final decision. This final determination settles the suit. The findings are put into writing and set forth the court's declaration of the facts that it found during trial, actions required by either party to litigation and the legal consequences thereof.

It is common for the party filing the suit in a court of equity to provide the court with a "decree nisi," which is a proposed final decree. If the adverse party does not respond within the prescribed time period and present evidence to the court that the proposed decree is not proper, then the decree nisi becomes a "decree absolute," or final decree. This is common in uncontested divorces and guardianship proceedings.

Final decrees, as with all other official court documents, are filed with the clerk of the court that issued them. The court clerk keeps these records and provides photocopies and certified copies of these documents to requesting parties. This is helpful when parties to the lawsuit need to review information for compliance or when one party alleges contempt of the judgment. A judge will review the order and any evidence of compliance or alleged noncompliance, then make a final determination of contempt based on the originally filed court document.

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Discussion Comments

By discographer — On Oct 10, 2014

Temporary decrees and absolute decrees basically speed up court processes. Courts have to give specific time frames for cases or things will never reach a conclusion. Decrees do that by giving a time frame in which the decision may be changed with new evidence or applications in regards to the case. But if these are not produces within that time frame, then the decree becomes final.

Of course, it is possible to request the case to be reopened or retried if new evidence were to come up at a later time. But for cases where new evidences are not found and everything remains the same, the court saves time by issuing the decree and moving on to the next case.

By donasmrs — On Oct 09, 2014

@fBoyle-- I'm not a lawyer but I don't think that decree nisi is used in divorce cases in the US. I may be wrong, but I think it is used in the UK and the waiting period is something like six weeks.

I suppose in some countries, the decree nisi may automatically become decree absolute if neither party objects. But in UK divorce cases, a party still has to apply for a decree absolute after the waiting period is over. This may be something reserved for cases involving family law in order to protect the family institution and increase the chances of people reconciling.

By fBoyle — On Oct 09, 2014

What is the period of time in which a decree nisi becomes a decree absolute in divorce cases? Does anyone know?

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