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Judgments Nisi and Nunc pro Tunc

The law has its own language and much of it can be confusing to laypersons. Often the law incorporates Latin phrases such as res ipsa loquiter, which means “the thing speaks for itself.” It’s a phrase used in tort law to explain that concept that simply because something happened is evidence of negligence. The most commonly used example is two trains headed in opposite directions on the same track. In the absence of negligence, that doesn’t happen, so the fact that it did is proof of itself that someone was negligent.

Two other terms that come up, often in the context of divorce, are judgments nisi and judgments nunc pro tunc. A judgment nisi is a judgment that becomes effective on a date in the future, and then only if certain circumstances occur. In divorce it is sometimes called an interlocutory decree and the nisi  period, the time between when the decree is signed by the court and when it actually becomes effective, is called the interlocutory period, or, colloquially, the cooling off period. It’s designed to let the parties rethink their decision. During the nisi period the parties can withdraw the decree and the divorce doesn’t become final. The circumstance that makes the decree final upon expiration of the nisi period is that the parties do not ask to withdraw the decree.

Nunc pro tunc literally means “now for then.” It makes a court order retroactive to a certain date. It’s most often used to correct a clerical error, such as where a judgment that is time-sensitive was submitted to the court but for some reason wasn’t entered timely. For example, again in the context of divorce, suppose that a decree was submitted on June 10 with the expectation that it would be entered shortly thereafter (without a nisi period). In reliance on the expectation of entry of the decree, one of the parties got remarried on June 20. As it turns out, however, the clerk didn’t submit the order to the judge, or the judge misplaced the decree, or for whatever reason the decree didn’t get signed until July 1. The effect is that the parties weren’t divorced as of June 20 and the remarriage of one of those parties was therefore illegal. To correct this, the court would enter a decree nunc pro tunc, making its decree of July 1 retroactive to June 10.


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