A divorce decree is the final judgment in a divorce case. Depending on the state, it may also be called a final order or a final judgment, and it outlines the judge’s final decisions in the case. The divorce decree will have specific conclusions for issues like property distribution (in some states called “equitable distribution”), child custody and support, and alimony payments. The divorce decree also dissolves the marriage and makes the divorce “final” or “official.”
Any party to the divorce can appeal the decree, so long as it is not prohibited by state statute. Depending on the state, both parties can file an appeal to the decree at the same time.
Because the appellate system gives a lot of deference to the original judge, it is unusual (but not impossible) to overturn the divorce decree. If both spouses agree to the terms of the settlement, the final settlement cannot be overturned on appeal unless there were issues with how the agreement came about.
The most common claim for appealing a divorce decree is that the court made a mistake regarding the law in the final judgment. The party filing the appeal must show that the judge made some kind of error or mistake in applying or interpreting the law regarding the circumstances of the case.
Usually, a party cannot simply challenge facts that were already established during the original proceeding. If the facts have been established at the lower court, the appellate court will accept those as the facts of the case, unless something about those facts is a reflection of the mistake that the court made in applying the law.
For example, if the court concluded that the husband’s income was $50,000 a year, this fact could not be contested on appeal — unless it can be proven that the court applied the wrong legal standard for calculating income. If the fact is the result of the wrong legal standard being applied, then this could be possibly challenged on appeal.
Other common grounds that might support an appeal of the divorce decree might include:
- Instances of fraud committed by the opposing party in connection with the court proceedings;
- Hidden assets or concealment of other important information by the other party; and
- Discovery of new facts that could not otherwise be discovered during the original proceedings.
While these are all legitimate instances in which an appeal might stand, the appeal is most likely to be successful if it is based on an error in law committed by the court.
There are different ways that a final divorce decree can be challenged, and many of them are only granted according to the judge’s discretion. Some ways that you can challenge the decree include:
- Appeal: This is the “normal” avenue for challenging a divorce decree. It is also one of the most time-consuming. You usually have about 30 days to file an appeal after the final judgment has been issued, and the appeal must be based on the court’s mistake of law. In general, no new facts can be introduced on appeal.
- The appellate process has strict procedures and deadlines about filing the notice of appeal (the document that tells the court and the other party that you intend to appeal the judgment). If you fail to follow your state and county procedures, or miss that deadline, you may lose your right to appeal.
- Motion for Rehearing: A motion for rehearing is a very technical type of procedure that must be filed almost immediately after the judgment is issued. You do not have an absolute right to have the case reheard — the request must be granted by the judge.
- Motion for Relief from Judgment: A motion for relief from judgment is only granted in limited circumstances, like if the other party committed fraud or concealed assets.
- Generally, this motion may be granted only in cases where something serious has occurred that affects the fairness of the decree (not just because you disagree with the outcome). The motion for relief from judgment usually has a longer deadline for filing than the motion for rehearing.
If you want to appeal your divorce decree, it is critical that you pay attention to the deadlines. All of these potential procedures have very strict deadlines, in some cases 10 days or less after the final judgment is issued.
If you miss the deadline, you may miss your chance to appeal the decree. Talk to a local attorney as soon as possible about the various deadlines for motions and appeals to make sure you don’t lose your opportunity before you act on it.
Every case is different, but the appeal process is not a quick one. Sometimes, depending on the case, the appeal can even take as long as a year or two. This is especially true when the case is “remanded” to a lower court, which means that the case is sent back to the lower court to reconsider the issues.
The appeal process can also be expensive, and may not provide the results you are seeking. If you are planning to appeal your divorce decree, you may want to take into consideration how the overall length of the process will affect other important life decisions.
If you believe that the court made a mistake in your final divorce decree, you may want to discuss the matter with an attorney. Appealing the divorce can be a very complex undertaking, with a lot of important details to consider and deadlines for filing particular paperwork.
Having an experienced divorce lawyer or family law lawyer on your side through the process can give you peace of mind, knowing that your lawyer can steadily guide you through the process and advise you each step of the way on the best way to proceed. You can also feel good about having a professional making sure your appeal is based on solid grounds and filed in a timely fashion.