Another word for the term “decree” is “judgment.” What this means is that a decree, in the field of law, refers to an official order that is created and handed down by an authority figure, typically a judge. A decree can be issued in any legal matter, though two of the more common ones are divorce decrees and adoption decrees. To explore this concept, consider the following decree definition.

Definition of Decree


  1. An official order created and issued by someone with legal authority, like a judge.


1275–1325       Middle English  (decre)

What is a Decree?

A decree is an official order that is drafted and issued by someone in a position of legal authority, like a judge. For example, a decree is issued at the end of a divorce case that ties up the loose ends of the divorce proceeding. This is called a “divorce decree.” When an adoption successfully goes through, the court issues the couple such an to finalize it.

A decree, however, is different from a court order. A decree is more of an announcement of the situation at hand. “You are officially divorced.” “You are officially the parents of your adopted child.” An order, on the other hand, lays out the behaviors and events that the court demands be followed upon the entry of that order. For example, decrees do not handle child support and how it should be paid out, while a court order does.

Divorce Decree

A divorce decree is not the same as a divorce certificate. The difference here is that a divorce decree is a final order issued by the court declaring all of the orders the couple are to follow once their divorce is in effect. The divorce certificate is similar to a birth certificate or marriage certificate, in that it is a document issued by the state for record-keeping purposes.

The day the court signs the divorce decree is the day the divorce is final. The couple is then legally divorced as of the date of the decree and can go on to marry other people if they so choose. The now ex-wife also has the privilege of legally returning to her maiden name if she wishes to do so.

Interestingly, in many states, the divorce decree orders the name change. The divorce certificate may not even address the name change. Therefore, if a woman wants to change her name on her driver’s license or Social Security card, she may have to present the divorce decree, in addition to the divorce certificate, to prove she has been given permission for the change.

Adoption Decree

An adoption decree declares the adoptive parents the official parents of the child to be adopted. An adoption decree makes the child as legally theirs as if the child was naturally born to them. At this point, a new birth certificate is issued, listing the adoptive parents as the new parents of the child. The parents also have the right to change the child’s name, and from that point on they are legally responsible for him.

Interlocutory Decree

An interlocutory decree is a decree issued while a case is still ongoing. It is a temporary order, and it is not meant to be finalized until enough time has passed to determine whether the order is working out for both parties. If so, then the order will be made final at a later date. Cases that typically see interlocutory decrees being issued include cases involving custody, divorce, and adoption.

Decree Nisi

A decree nisi is a court order that has yet to be finalized. A decree nisi is typically issued so as to allow for changes should new evidence pop up over the course of the case, or new petitions be filed before the expiration date of the decree nisi.

The “nisi” portion of the term is roughly translated from Latin to mean “unless.” Therefore, a good way to remember a decree nisi is as an order that will be finalized unless something happens to cause it to be altered in any way. Decree nisis are seen often in divorces, where everything is up in the air until the couple can stop fighting long enough to agree on something.

Difference Between Decree and Order

While a decree is a kind of order, the two are different things. Refer to the chart below for a more thorough comparison between the two:

Basis for Comparison



Definition A formal judgment made by a judge that explains of the rights of the parties in the case. The official announcement of the court’s decision in a case as the issues pertain to the parties.
When Passed Can be passed in a case that began with a Complaint. Can be passed in a case brought by complaint, petition, or application.
Ascertainment of Rights Clearly considers and outlines the rights of the parties in the case. May not consider the rights of the parties in the case as clearly.
Amount Only one decree can be made in a case. One case can involve numerous orders.
Type Can be preliminary (at the start of the case), final, or partly both. Always final.
Appealable? Can normally be appealed, unless the parties are prohibited by law from appealing it. Can be either appealable or non-appealable.

Decree Example Involving the Adoption of a Cambodian Orphan

An example of decree issues can be seen in a complicated case involving a bitter custody battle and the adoption of a Cambodian orphan. (Note that cases involving a minor are always private, so the parties are referred to by their initials only.) In this case, “ERJ” and “LMB” were the couple at the center of the dispute. Here, they both claimed to have custody of an orphan they adopted: “John Doe.” In 2003, ERJ and LMB became romantically involved and discussed adopting a child. While they were courting, rich heiress ERJ became more involved with an orphanage in Cambodia that she had established earlier that year.

After both had met John Doe on one of ERJ’s trips to Cambodia, the couple decided to adopt him. After commencing proceedings, an adoption certificate was issued by the Cambodian government granting LMB approval to adopt John Doe. A birth certificate was then issued, citing LMB as John Doe’s father. LMB did not participate in a “Giving and Receiving” ceremony, a ceremony used by the Cambodian government as a way to prevent child trafficking. During the ceremony, a Cambodian official gives the child to the adoptive parent in person.

Shortly thereafter, the adoption fell through and the couple broke up. ERJ ultimately decided to adopt John Doe,  who was living with her at the time. LMB then wrote a letter to the Cambodian government asking that his request to adopt John Doe be withdrawn. Six months later, ERJ submitted her letter requesting to adopt the child. She too was then issued an adoption certificate and, like LMB, did not participate in a “Giving and Receiving” ceremony.

In August 2006, LMB sought to vacate of ERJ’s adoption, as well as visitation with John Doe. LMB claimed ERJ’s adoption was a fraud, since he was still listed as John Doe’s father on the birth certificate. A trial was ordered, and during this time, the Cambodian government issued a letter saying LMB’s parentage should be contested, since he did not participate in the “Giving and Receiving” ceremony. Interestingly, nothing was said about ERJ not participating in the same ceremony.

The Surrogates Court decided that John Doe should remain with ERJ but that her adoption should be vacated, and that LMB be declared John Doe’s legal father. ERJ appealed the decision with regard to LMB’s parentage, and the case then escalated to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Here, the Court affirmed the Surrogates Court’s decree. Said the Court:

“Because John Doe, ERJ and LMB are all domicilaries of New York, it remains to New York courts to determine the adoption status of John Doe…Plainly, to allow the Cambodian government to intervene in New York matters years after it granted LMB the adoption would involve an unprecedented surrender of the jurisdiction of this Court. It would also leave adoptive parents like LMB ‘twisting in the wind’ while they wait to see whether a foreign government would change its mind about the grant of a ‘full and fina’l adoption, potentially years after the adoption.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Application – A formal motion, request, or petition.
  • Complaint – The first document filed with the court by someone who is claiming legal rights against another party.
  • Petition – A formal written application to a court requesting forms of relief on behalf of the person filing it.
  • Vacate – The act of making a prior legal judgment void by law.