Once a divorce decree has been entered in Minnesota, there are only a limited number of situations in which a party to the action can re-open (or seek to vacate) it. To be clear, to “re-open” a decree represents an attempt to change something (like a property settlement) that is otherwise final in nature. This is distinguished from a motion to “modify” custody, parenting time, child support or spousal maintenance.
A divorce decree can be reopened under the following circumstances:
1. Clerical Error
In terms of a clerical error, it is certainly permissible to ask a judge to modify a Judgment and Decree if the divorce decree contains a clerical error. A clerical error may be an erroneous date of birth, or legal description of a piece of real estate.
Fraud provides another basis to re-open. If one spouse to the action has misrepresented something that is “material” to the Judgment and Decree, and the other spouse relied upon that misrepresentation in agreeing to something, the judge may be willing to undo the agreement. Transparency in negotiation is key.
If either party was mistaken about a material fact, through no fault of their own, the court maintains the ability to undo the agreement, if it would be fair to do so.
4. Newly Discovered Evidence
The divorce decree may also be reopened if there is newly discovered evidence about a particular item of significance. The “newly discovered” portion must not have been accessible to the party seeking to undo the agreement at the time the agreement was reached.
“Surprise” provides yet another basis to reopen. This theory is rarely utilized, given the requirement that the parties have an open exchange of information as part of their divorce.
6. Excusable Neglect
If a party that is subject to a divorce decree failed to appear for court, or respond to injury for some “legitimate” reason, they may be excused from the court’s order for excusable neglect.
Finally, as a court of equity, the judge retains the ability to reopen a divorce decree if it is otherwise fair to do so under the circumstances. This “catch-all” provision in the law affords a party who does not land in one of the foregoing categories an opportunity to argue for the decree to be vacated.
All said, it is rather difficult to have a divorce decree re-opened in Minnesota.
From a timing standpoint, most requests to re-open must occur within one year from the date of entry of the divorce decree. However, there are no timing limitations if one is alleging a clerical error, or fraud upon the court (different than the typical fraud referenced above, which does have a one-year time limitation).